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A Psychodynamic Account of Contemporary

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Islam and its Place in Civilizational Seriation


Some time ago in From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness I discussed a famous Freud quote. The quote runs as follows:

…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.

After this, in Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, I suggested that Freud’s distinction between neurotic misery and ordinary human unhappiness can be applied not only to individuals but also to social wholes. Thus it makes sense to speak of neurotically miserable civilizations as compared to civilizations possessing merely ordinary levels of human unhappiness.

Then I went yet further afield in Agriculture and the Macabre, in which I tried to make the case the agricultural civilization is particularly vulnerable to neurotic misery. While industrial-technological civilization certainly has its problems and its limitations, whatever may be said of it, it is not macabre and retrospective in the way that agricultural civilization is.

I have been even more specific in identifying the religious wars of Early Modern Europe (also corresponding with the witch craze) as the nadir of Western civilization and as a paradigm case of a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery. Eventually Western civilization grew out of its neurotic misery, although not without an unprecedented level of carnage, and today Western civilization is a fine representative of ordinary human unhappiness as the basis for civilization. Not very exciting, but it’s better than the alternative.

Islam, as an historical phenomenon, is several hundred years behind Christianity in its development. I do not intend this statement to in any way imply that there is anything intrinsic to Islam that keeps its development behind that of Christendom, but there is the historical fact that, of these two religious traditions of the masses, Islam was promulgated six hundred years later than Christianity. Christianity had already been at its internecine squabbles for hundreds of years when Mohammad performed the Hijra to Medina to found the first Muslim community.

The strife we see today in Islam is the sign of a civilization — Islamic civilization — in the grip of neurotic misery. This situation did not come about suddenly, and it is not going to go away suddenly. It is a narrative that must unfold over a period of hundreds of years, and, as I recently wrote in Why tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail, Homo non facit saltumMan makes no leaps. All development is evolutionary.

The trend toward the neurotic misery of Islamic civilization has been developing for quite some time. Charles Doughty, who traveled through Arab lands in the nineteenth century, frequently comments on the fanaticism of his hosts, as, for example, in this passage:

“The high sententious fantasy of ignorant Arabs, the same that will not trust the heart of man, is full of infantile credulity in all religious matter; and already the young religionist was rolling the sentiment of divine mission in his unquiet spirit.”

Charles Montagu Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, Volume 1, Cambridge, 1888, p. 95

And this…

“I wondered with a secret horror at the fiend-like malice of these fanatical beduins, with whom no keeping touch nor truth of honourable life, no performance of good offices, might win the least favor from the dreary, inhuman, and for our sins, inveterate dotage of their bloodguilty religion. But I had eaten of their cheer, and might sleep among wolves.”

Op. cit., p. 502

Such passages are most unwelcome today, and many would regard them as an embarrassment better forgotten, but I suspect that Charles Doughty knew a great deal more about Arabia than many an Arabist today. Rather than taking such remarks as a sign of Doughty’s racism, we might take them in historical context as intimations of what was to come. And historical context is crucial here, since precisely the same thing would no doubt have been in found in Christendom in a parallel historical context. I have no doubt that if a worldly and learned Muslim visited Europe one or two hundred years before Europe’s religious wars, he would have found much the same thing. In fact, Montesquieu depicted exactly this after Europe’s neurotic misery in his epistolary novel The Persian Letters.

A recent feature in Foreign Policy magazine, It’s Not About Us by Christian Caryl (20 February 2013) about intra-Islamic relations, and especially the split between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, is an exposition of the extent to which Islam is as much at war with itself as with the infidel — exactly like Christendom during its period of neurotic misery. It is well known that militant Jihadis sympathetic to Al Qaeda tend to be Sunni, while the Persians and minority communities throughout the Arab world are Shia, and that there are radical elements on both sides of this divide who are vying to be recognized as the vanguard to militant Islam in the contemporary world. These sectarian divides within Islam frequently correspond to divisions in political power and economic influence, making the religious quarrel indistinguishable from broader social conflicts (again, like early modern Europe). And why should social groups contest with each other to be recognized as the vanguard of Islamic radicalism? Because there is a social consensus that radical Islamism is the telos of civilization.

Just as there were many sane and rational men who lived through Christendom’s neurotic misery (Michel de Montaigne comes to mind, for example), so too there are many sane and rational Muslims in our age of Islam’s neurotic misery — but it would be dishonest to pretend that the exceptions to the rule are anything other than exceptions. When almost everyone agreed that “spectral evidence’ could be admitted in the trials of individuals accused of witchcraft, we must acknowledge that there existed at that time a social consensus that this is what constituted “justice.” And so, too, today, when polls reveal that a majority of Muslims will not condemn atrocities and acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam and Jihad, we must acknowledge that there is a social consensus that such acts are widely considered to be permissible, if not encouraged — no matter the reasonable few who are rightly horrified.

I have learned that when talking about the scales of history that apply to civilization and big history that one must go out of one’s way to emphasize that these are not events or movements that can be observed in a single human lifetime. Christianity’s buildup to its own neurotic misery required hundreds and hundreds of years of development; the actual period of neurotic misery lasted as much as two centuries, and the whole episode is still, hundreds of years later, being put behind us. It doesn’t matter how much you might want things to be tied up neatly in your lifetime — if you’re going to discuss these great forces that shape civilizations, you have to get used to the idea that it’s not like observing the life cycles of fruit flies.

Astronomers, who similarly work on very long time scales, have the same difficulty in explaining themselves and getting others to understand in a visceral sense the elapse of eons. The astronomer reconstructs the dynamic history of a universe that seems, to us, to be standing still, by looking in all different directions in the sky and observing different kinds of celestial bodies at different stages of development. The astronomer must then put all these fragments of cosmological history together on one large canvas that he will never himself see in a lifetime, but which he sees in his mind’s eye.

When archaeologists similarly survey different sites and find pottery in different stages of development in different places, they try to put it all together with the movements of ancient peoples. This assembly of a structure in time is called seriation. The astronomer engages in cosmological seriation. (The Hertzsprung–Russell diagram is the seriation of stellar evolution.) The student of civilization and of big history, engages in civilizational seriation.

We observe but a single slice of time — the present — and from this single slice of time we attempt to reconstruct the whole of the continuum of time. Ultimately, this is a project of temporal seriation.

The limited temporal horizon of most contemporary commentators on political strife makes it impossible to seem the larger patterns revealed by civilizational and temporal seriation, and so they make elementary errors of historiography. And not only in politics, but in every aspect of civilization. I have repeatedly tried to point out the misunderstandings in the media of China’s “peaceful rise,” which is really China’s industrial revolution.

Have I repeated myself a sufficient number of time to make my point? I doubt it. But i will keep at it, reminding the reader at every turn that the perspective of Big History cannot be assimilated to the personal experience of time, and that one must pursue a strategy of temporal seriation to see larger patterns that do not reveal themselves to the eye.

One of these larger patterns is the pattern of the development of religion as a mass social phenomenon, and among mass religions one pattern is that of passing through a stage of neurotic misery on the way to the mature expression of religion within a civilization that does not cripple that civilization.

Religion begins with something as small and as personal as a superstition or a ritual observance. Eventually it becomes a system of mythology, and once the system of mythology is systematically integrated with the state structures of agricultural civilization religion becomes a principle of social order and a locus of conflict. This conflict must play itself out until civilization gropes its way toward a social principle consistent with the change and diversity that makes a state successful in an age of industrialized economies. All of this takes time — much more time than any one individual can observe in a lifetime. (There, I’ve repeated myself again.)

The neurotic misery of Islam will persist for hundreds of years, as the neurotic misery of Christendom persisted for hundreds of years. There are perhaps ways to ease the transition and lessen the suffering, but we cannot simply leap over this unpleasantness. It must be worked on in real time, just as a patient on the psychiatrist’s couch must work his way through painful early memories before he can simply be unhappy instead of being neurotically or hysterically miserable.

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Thursday


Sigmund "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" Freud

Sigmund "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" Freud

Freud has been variously quoted as saying that psychoanalysis could treat hysterical or neurotic misery, but that it could not treat ordinary human unhappiness. The most a patient of psychoanalytic therapy could hope for was deliverance from the neurotic misery; pscyhoanalysis, in the words of a famous novel, does not promise you a rose garden. This comes from the concluding paragraph of Freud’s Studies in Hysteria, which has been translated many times, hence the varying words of the quotation:

…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.

Freud, Studies in Hysteria, translated and edited by James Strachey

The DSM — the official go-to guide for mental disorders — has eliminated the classification of “neurosis”, and “hysteria” is a term held in even greater suspicion given its past usage. Both were crucial terms for Freud, but it is difficult to find an authoritative definition of terms no longer current in scientific usage.

Biology online gives the following definition of obsessional neurosis:

A psychological disorder with a pervasive pattern of inflexible perfectionism which begins by early adulthood as indicated by many of the following symptoms: an unattainable perfectionism with overly strict standards which often make it impossible to complete a task; preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or scheduling to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost; unreasonable insistence that others submit to exactly his or her way of doing things; an unnecessary, excessive devotion to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships; rumination to the point of indecisiveness; overconscientiousness about matters of morality, ethics, or values; restricted expression of affection; lack of generosity in giving time, money, or gifts when no personal gain is likely to result; and an inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value.

The same internet site gives the following definition of hysteria:

a nervous affection, occurring almost exclusively in women, in which the emotional and reflex excitability is exaggerated, and the will power correspondingly diminished, so that the patient loses control over the emotions, becomes the victim of imaginary sensations, and often falls into paroxism or fits.

The chief symptoms are convulsive, tossing movements of the limbs and head, uncontrollable crying and laughing, and a choking sensation as if a ball were lodged in the throat. The affection presents the most varied symptoms, often simulating those of the gravest diseases, but generally curable by mental treatment alone.

In the quote from Freud above, as well as in the definitions of neurosis and hysteria, it is individual mental illness that is the apparently exclusive concern, but these formulations are highly suggestive, pointing to formulations that would describe neuroses and hysteria unique to collections of individuals. We have all heard of the “madness of crowds” and of tulipomania in early modern Holland and the whole history of speculative bubbles since then. Freud himself suggests in passing the possibility of universal neuroses. In his famous essay, The Future of an Illusion, Freud wrote:

“…devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”

Confessional communities, each with their distinctive religious rituals, while not in any sense universal, clearly embody what Freud had in mind and constitute neurotic and hysterical socio-cultural practices. It could be argued (and I think that this is implicit in Freud) that the hysterical and neurotic misery of the universal neuroses of religion are pathological, and that we can reasonably hope for deliverance from this religious misery into ordinary human unhappiness.

James Boswell, obsessive-compulsive journalizer of Samuel Johnson's life.

James Boswell, obsessive-compulsive journalizer of Samuel Johnson's life.

Not only individuals but also entire societies can be transformed from the neurotic misery of compulsive ritual into a state of common unhappiness. What is needed for this is a psychoanalysis of culture that goes to the origins of that culture and all its hidden horrors in order to discover the initial traumas that provoked the neurotic response. We already have a name for this, and it is history. The practice of history — history that rigorously embodies methodological naturalism — is the treatment for religious pathology.

Kit Smart wrote his poem Jubilate Agno while institutionalized in an asylum for religious mania.

Kit Smart wrote his poem Jubilate Agno while institutionalized in an asylum for religious mania.

At the present moment of history all this sounds a bit incredible, and the reader may well think I am joking, but during the Enlightenment the English poet Christopher Smart was institutionalized in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics for “religious mania” (notably not Bedlam, which was the only other asylum in England at this time). The confinement was controversial at the time, and Dr. Johnson defended Smart. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, records the following conversation concerning the poet:

BURNEY. “How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?”
JOHNSON. “It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it.”
BURNEY. “Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise.”
JOHNSON. “No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the ale-house ; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities, were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”

Was Kit Smart mad? No more nor less than Johnson, though Johnson himself might be institutionalized today, not for his religious observances but for his personal hygiene. In perhaps the most famous of Johnsonian apocrypha, there is a story that a lady said to Johnson that he smelled. Dr. Johnson is said to have replied, “Nay, madam. You smell; I stink.”

Would Samuel Johnson be committed today for disinterest in personal care?

Would Samuel Johnson be committed today for disinterest in personal care?

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