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September 04th 2015 print

John Carroll

Why the West Wants to Lose

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

west losesGeorge 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.

Failing belief may trigger hatred of the dying god. Lapsing Catholics turn against the Pope. The residue of some love or need generates the hatred. Likewise, nun jokes are only amusing to ex-Catholics—in whom there remains a raw nerve, some tendril of the old authority causing an itch that may only be soothed by mockery. The longing for authority, in negation, leads to hostility to the weakness of existing authorities—for university students in the 1960s it was parents, political leaders and university lecturers, presidents and vice-chancellors. This was understandable, and more than pure negation: the curiosity of a youth generation eager to take on the adult world seeks leadership and direction, not an ineffectual older generation limp in its own lack of direction. Stavrogin was brought up by weak father-figures and an hysterical mother.

More pathological in the 1960s was the lurch into idealising mega-powerful, brutal dictators like Mao Zedong. Here was vivid symbol of the hurt felt by the loss of the old gods—the old authorities. More simple negation was exhibited when self-proclaimed peace-loving, flower-waving students demonstrated violently against the Vietnam War.

 

A commanding historical paradigm is instructive. Was Saul of Tarsus, who viciously persecuted Christians, but then had a blinding awakening on the Road to Damascus, and turned into Paul the crusading prophet for Christ, was he a case of resistance or negation? Did he persecute Christians out of resistance to the unconscious attraction of their message, until the inward pressure became too great, and he broke down, to be born again, becoming his true Christian self? Or did he change direction out of negation? If the latter, Paul represents an early case of the ordeal of unbelief, wildly over-compensating with gargantuan commitment to evangelising militancy. Whichever way we read it, his work served as a monumental act of the establishment of authority—that of Jesus.

It may be that the longing for authority has become a phenomenon of the past. Its time has lapsed, with the Western 1960s student worship of Mao Zedong a late symptom. Freud may have been right, in his Enlightenment optimism, that the modern world would grow out of its need for the father-projection, and for religion. However, I think Freud got the reasons wrong. It has happened not because of a new rationalism according to which the scientific material plane is satisfying enough to replace people’s need for a metaphysical order. Rather, it has happened as a result of the internalising of the religious impulse—I shall return to this later.

The awkwardness of the concept “God” is one sign of the decline of the longing for authority. Arguably there is no stronger example of the change in Western culture since the Renaissance—a period with which we still have much in common—than that representations of God as the old man with the long grey beard, such as exemplified by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, have become laughably incongruous. Today, even within the mainstream churches, priests and ministers are increasingly reluctant to use the G word. But if a church doesn’t have God, what is left? Why bother with a church? Eliot’s leap of faith has become progressively less plausible with every passing decade.

 

The ordeal of unbelief provides the modern context for the eruption of drives universal to the human condition, notably power envy and moral paranoia. They have provided the energy source for a new form of social pathology, one peculiar to the modern West—cultural masochism. The sado-masochistic pleasure gained by some individuals in suffering pain at the hands of another is projected outwards onto the person’s own culture and society. Damaging it, attacking it, seeing it suffer and being diminished, brings pleasure. This is extraordinary.

These same drives may be projected in any political direction, depending on the historical moment. In Germany in the 1930s, students were, in the main, inclined to the Nazi Right, and to a messianic nationalism with sadistic rather than masochistic tropes. Hitler cleverly exploited, in his writings and speeches, the need for something to believe in, which he offered to provide. Since the 1940s, it happens that political pathology in the West has been predominantly of the Left. This may, of course, change—for instance, xenophobic nationalist right-wing parties may rise again in Europe to be of more than marginal significance. And the emergence of Muslim youth in Western countries attracted by Islamic State fanaticism illustrates the broad effect of the ordeal of unbelief.

Traditional communities were able to keep such drives as power envy and moral paranoia in tight check by their very lack of individual freedom—their lack of choice of way of life, of occupation, and of personal relations—and the high visibility of behaviour vigilantly watched over by the coercive eye of the community. The community had authority.

 

Power envy

Three great psychologists have cast their powerful interpretative gaze across the modern world—Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Freud. Of them, the master interpreter of culture and its contemporary travails was Nietzsche.

Nietzsche argued that a will-to-power is at the core of human motivation. It leads inevitably to the weak envying the strong, and individual behaviour manifesting sublimations of this envy across all fronts. Nietzsche was following the seventeenth-century French moralist the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, who identified self-esteem (and with it vanity and insecurity) as the key to all human motivation. “Self-love is the greatest flatterer of all.” Humans are insecure egotists, which explains the pride and the fear that govern almost all of what they do. “The weak can never be sincere.”

Nietzsche extends the analysis to those who are discontented with their lives, ill at ease in themselves, which means, in reality, sick of themselves. Such individuals are inwardly driven to seek a cause for their suffering: someone or something must be to blame. The hurt becomes externalised. The pain is then anaesthetised, deadened, through the expression of emotion, the more savage the better. Visceral inadequacy explodes into ranting rage, or, when inhibited, muffled spluttering.

In Nietzsche’s account in his Genealogy of Morals, the Christian era tended to blame the self, internalising the suffering through promoting the concept of guilt. As sinner, I am sick of myself. In the post-Christian era, the blame is projected outwards.

Let me switch back to the contemporary world. Patriotism feeds off, and generates, an undercurrent of confidence, wanting the nation to be successful, which means powerful. It is the same with football fans supporting their team. Where the identification fails, or the authority of the parent society is too weak, resentment may surface in that hatred of nation that George Orwell found abhorrent. In Western countries, power envy is often expressed in reflex anti-Americanism, the target chosen simply because it is the leading power in the West—the leader on our side, so to speak. The morning after the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, and the killing of three thousand people, Monash University students were celebrating in public.

David Hicks became a hero for a broad section of those who are Left-oriented, on the surface grounds that he may have been tortured by the Americans while he was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. The subtext was that he had trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before and after September 11, 2001, including direct contact with Osama bin Laden; and he had fought against Coalition forces that included the Australian Army. The actions of this “hero” bordered on treason. The Hicks example suggests that the subject was not chosen simply as a device for thinking evil of America—although that was the case. Negation was at work, the candidate chosen because he had been actively engaged, siding with the enemy, directly at war with his own nation.

At the deeper cultural level, Australia’s creation myth—the Anzac legend—has been subjected to numerous attempts to belittle, and even invert it. This has been especially true since it has strengthened its hold on the national imagination in recent decades.

The ideological Left has generally had an irrationally wrought hostility to strong and intelligent leaders on the Right, such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Malcolm Fraser (while Prime Minister), Jeff Kennett and John Howard. Some were mocked as boof-headed (Kennett) or senile (Reagan). Here is further illustration of the recoil against power, with irritation corroding judgment. Strong leaders of the Left—for example, Franklin Roosevelt and Bob Hawke—have not attracted similar antipathy.

Nietzsche argued that the clerisy—which includes the clergy and the intelligentsia—is of its nature impotent, compared with people who live active lives, who direct and make things, who are decisive, and who enjoy themselves. The clerisy, in its tortured inwardness, becomes rancorous—and above all moralistic. Out of disgust at itself, and irritation with its life, it launches into bad-tempered projections.

Whilst Nietzsche oversimplified—given that we humans are often composed of diverse personae blended into one complex form—strains of his central theme may be noted today. The clergy in mainstream churches hardly ever talk of faith, redemption, or God. They seem embarrassed by their core mission, which is to provide convincing answers to the big meaning questions of why we are here and what happens when we die. They rather don the ethical robes of empathy for the disadvantaged and rail against government callousness—appearing more like politicised social workers than apostles of the faith. Churches have traditionally acted as defenders of the moral order—notably in relation to the family. And they have taken on a significant social role: much of their admirable work remains in running nursing homes, shelters, centres for drug addicts, and providing meals for the homeless. My concern is when the moral and social agenda becomes politicised, and becomes a substitute for the quest for meaningful interpretations of the human story. It begins to stray into that search for a redemptive politics—for salvation through politics—which cursed the twentieth century. Religion and politics do not belong together—as Jesus himself taught.

Much of the intelligentsia has turned against the long Western high-cultural tradition that since Homer and Plato has sought the true, the beautiful and the good. It has rather set to criticising its society—customs, traditions and institutions. The current lead manifestation is refugee studies, whereby a dozen areas in the Humanities have taken up the politically fashionable “oppressed” of the moment, victims of a cruel, hard-hearted Australian government—there must be hundreds of PhD theses being written around the country on this blight on the national character. Now I don’t question that the practical politics of how to deal with a flow of people voyaging on barely seaworthy boats to try to land in Australia—with over a thousand already having drowned en route—raises difficult human challenges with no morally clear-cut solutions. What I do question is the exploitation of the issue in order to attack the civic order.

 

Moral paranoia

The paranoid disposition splits the world into good and evil (no grey). It does so in just the same way that fundamentalist religions do. Indeed, all fundamentalism exhibits the same psycho-pathology. We are reminded that the ordeal of unbelief is not entirely modern. Wherever there is fundamentalist religion, persecuting crusades, and the dogmatism that postulates infallible sacred texts inspired by the word of God, we may suspect that negation is at unconscious work. Those who are secure in their faith do not need to be so assertive. Shakespeare led the way in suspicion of those who protested too much. Insecure belief compensates by exaggerating its certainties. Strident dogma is a defence against the nothing.

Paranoid extremism is manifest in grandiose delusions of self-importance (at the psychotic margins, individuals imagine they are Christ or Napoleon); or in delusions of persecution, of oppression by monumental power and by tyrannical evil. The paranoid temperament needs to be hated; needs to feel oppressed. I am hated, therefore I am, quipped Frank Knopfelmacher in another context. For this temperament, the cosmos is riven by the warring forces of good and evil. Evil is Satanic, and therefore potent enough to spread superhuman contagion. Modern secular crusades are driven by ideological fundamentalism, imputing quasi-religious metaphysical forces that justify the intensity of venom against what is hated. These crusades have been predominantly but not exclusively of the Left—on the Right, the free-market camp has included some zealotry.

Let me give three examples. In the 1970s, Australian and American soldiers returning from fighting for their country in Vietnam were confronted by screaming contempt by tens of thousands of their fellow citizens. It was as if they had been fighting for the devil. Second, the nation and its people are spat upon today as racist, with particular examples (which can be found in any country) blown up and generalised. This is singularly unconvincing in the case of Australia, which has successfully welcomed and settled millions of immigrants from hundreds of countries and racial groups over the last seventy years. On any realistic scale of national xenophobia, Australia would rank very low. Third, a sanctimonious moralism singles out those who question dire predictions of human-induced global warming as “deniers”—covertly likening them to the demented historians who have denied that the Jewish Holocaust happened; or equates them with the tobacco industry, knowingly covering up the fact that what it peddled would kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people. What begins as a rational, scientifically-based argument metamorphoses into a moral crusade.

Moral paranoia may be a sub-category of power envy. The powerful, or the imagined powerful (Jewish bankers or more recently Israel, capitalists, the CIA, right-wing media moguls), are inflated to embody monolithic evil. Examples from the Right include George W. Bush’s moralising an “axis of evil” and Pauline Hanson’s fears that Asians were taking over Australia. Rupert Murdoch has made the perfect bogeyman with his global media empire, given that the rampaging paranoid imagination is inclined to see the invisible tentacles of media influence reaching into every home and controlling the minds of the simple souls who live there. These contemporary Citizen Kanes, Strangeloves and Big Brothers flood the world in a fog of pollution—with the very use of contamination imagery illustrating the high moralist cast of mind, and the quasi-religious associations with sin and damnation.

Power envy blinds the subject to the complexities of the world. A type of demonic possession results. La Rochefoucauld described envy as a frenzy. The broader existential form is the Judas syndrome: I am not who I want to be! The particulars are I am not charismatic enough, powerful enough, influential enough, or beautiful enough. With Judas it is specific: I am not him.

Then follows the sublimation, with the resentment projected onto the political stage, where there are no personal repercussions, no face-to-face confrontations, where irresponsible opinions do not need to be defended or tested. Free-floating opinion has immunity from redress. There is no reality principle at work, such as the one checking the business that loses touch going broke; or the government that appears incompetent being voted out of office. So the discontented can vent without fear, and with a good conscience, especially when they are in the service of lofty principles, like compassion and care for the weak and afflicted.

 

Conclusion

The ultimate challenge of Nietzsche is to prove that he is exaggerating. If we humans are no more than monomaniacal egotists, simply motivated by power, and the anxieties that flow from fear of powerlessness, this reality is a more severe blow to our self-esteem than Darwin’s linking our parentage to the monkey, or Freud’s laying bare of the degree we are controlled by dark unconscious motivations. Mind, Nietzsche was not the first—he follows the Duc de La Rochefoucauld.

What is the evidence in support of Nietzsche? Who has any friends whom they don’t suspect will gain some pleasure if they come to harm? Gore Vidal quipped that whenever one of his friends had a success, a part of him died. It is a cliché about the aged that they gain satisfaction when one of their friends falls off the perch before they do: the warm triumphal glow of Got you! Strip away the civilised veneer and raw competitiveness rules. Children are unabashedly transparent in their me-me-me self-promotions. Are they not simply more open and honest than adults?

Competitiveness rules as much in the defences against fear of failure as in open battles for power and influence. The compulsion to do better than the other, have more influence, and more power to attract, may be direct, as in elaborate female rituals of make-up and dressing. It may be indirect, as in sublimated identification with a celebrity, a football team, or a political party. Fear of failure generates a plethora of rationalisations, from the openly hypocritical “I am a caring person”, “competition is selfish”, “we humans are essentially good”, and “modesty is a virtue”; to the self-deception of “I am a better person for the experience”; and to the more subtle putdowns of “all politicians are liars”, “he is too good to be true”, and “she is just a pretty bird-brain”.

On the other side of the ledger, contra Nietzsche, there is some genuine compassion, a spontaneous and sympathetic warmth to another’s suffering. Nietzsche was right to judge pity as a mask for superiority, usually—its condescension an aspect of the will-to-power. But it is not always so. Mind, genuine empathy usually flows from a person’s capacity to put himself or herself in the shoes of the suffering person, becoming them—so the pity is imagined self-pity, tears shed over one’s own imagined suffering. It is not altruistic. Similarly, in the thick of the human melee there is some genuine sympathy for the disadvantaged and afflicted. George Orwell himself belongs here. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he wrote about the oppressive living and working conditions of the urban poor, whom he had lived among. He did not romanticise their misery or idealise their character. His sympathy was clear-eyed.

I have led a number of seminar groups through La Rochefoucauld’s maxims, and I have never found anyone who ends up disagreeing with the basic proposition that self-esteem or vanity is the central driver of human behaviour. Nietzsche’s will-to-power is merely a variant, the other side of the same coin, placing more stress on instinctual drive and less on existential insecurity. Viewed from the other direction, La Rochefoucauld’s feeling good about oneself cannot be detached from a sense of being a powerful presence.

Summing up, the obvious conclusion we have arrived at is that the psychological reality of the human condition is mainly dispiriting. Writ large is Macbeth’s “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage”. Which takes us back to our opening gambit, and the threat of unbelief in a secular age. With the axis of belief/unbelief tipping towards the latter, it becomes more difficult to find metaphysical inspiration. In other words, when unbelief doesn’t slide into cultural pathology, it may be interpreted as a rational and honest response to a disenchanted reality. But that is Stavrogin.

Nietzsche’s will-to-power is the theory for a disenchanted age. When the whole world is disenchanted, power stands alone, and rules. It is in service of the last limit, the No of No’s—death. Stavrogin is cursed by his failure to find anything with the authority to check him, to shame him, and any passion strong enough to engage him, so the one thing left to stop him is death, which he chooses. Power writ everywhere is the world of Macbeth, until he realises he is doomed. Australian politics today is jammed with wretched illustration, in the phalanxes of diminutives who choose to enter its halls without the slightest commitment to any cause except their own careers.

Stavrogin is one stage further on than Macbeth, having lost interest in power. He is too sure of himself, and too honest, to seek to blame others. He is unmoralistic and does not envy. Only a dispirited death remains. He has a dignity not to be found in the discomposure and lack of self-awareness of the cultural masochists. However, in concert with them, his life expresses a kind of pained outcry against a society that has betrayed its responsibility of providing something more than power. He, at least, had tried to find a new way, a new authority, a new framework of belief, even though he failed.

But no era is disenchanted in any absolute sense. That is not the nature of the human condition. Today, as always, the sense of a transcendent is what lifts the individual above the rapaciously selfish psychological plane. Those who find deep fulfilment in their work are likely to give it selfless devotion, and with it whomever they serve. Many find in family life a rich fulfilment that is inextricably tied to giving themselves to something bigger than their individual selves. The sportsman or woman who finds scintillating form may well be humbled by the experience, recognising that it was not their normal inadequate self that should be praised. Then there is the humbling power of nature: individuals on the beach, up mountains, fishing on a lake at dawn, trekking in the bush, may be drawn out of themselves, in a spirit of wonder. In this type of experience, overwhelmed by the sublime, their implied diminutiveness and powerlessness is, strangely, not a source of anxiety. And even more, it may provide release from the burdens of self, from the strutting and fretting. Genuine compassion, spontaneous as it may seem, depends on some kind of faith in the human essence, which is another vein of the transcendent.

At play is not belief in the more traditional sense, that is faith in a higher and external supernatural power. It is rather the experience of acting in the world, with total, unselfconscious devotion to the act, so that the individual is transported outside the self into some kind of mysterious embrace with a beyond. Here is the intimation of “something there”. It is an intimation to which Stavrogin remained deaf.

John Carroll has a website at https://johncarrollsociologist.wordpress.com.

 

Comments [6]

  1. Jody says:

    This has been an absolute pleasure to read and has crystalized my own ideas. As a high-school teacher I used to tell my students many of the things contained in this brilliant essay; principally, that one must have a belief in something external to self in order to have a fulfilling life. What a surprise, then, to find my thoughts contained in this essay!!

    In my senior years I have struggled to understand the nihilism and masochistic behaviours, particularly from the Left, which have given rise to our modern lack of authority and its narcissistic emptiness. I believe Christopher Lasch anticipated much of that in his excellent book, “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life and an Age of Diminishing Expectations”. Instead of becoming angry about it, I should be more philosophical. Thank you, Dr. Carroll, for the opportunity!!

    And I do miss Christopher Hitchens; if anybody could have engaged with exactly these issues in his capacity as a public intellectual it would surely be him – fearless to the end. And he came to loathe people like Gore Vidal and Noame Chomsky for their rebarbative, combative and fulminating anti-Americanism.

    • Bill Martin says:

      Hear, hear Jody! Your first paragraph I might have written myself. I also felt humbly greatful to the author for both the enjoyment and the enlightenment; and marvelled at the range of his deep understanding of the subject as well as his obviously great range of reading. I was particularly stuck by his penultimate paragraph. It meshed beautifully with my experience while attending a philosophy group for 15-odd years, some years ago, and its enduring residue thereof.

  2. Keith Kennelly says:

    So why are we here?

    • Jody says:

      I think the questions is far more pertinent than that answer – which will never be discovered – because the above essay hypothesizes what happens to people when they don’t ask it, or when they discover ‘strange gods’!!

  3. Jody says:

    This morning I’ve been thinking again about this essay by Dr. Carroll. It occurs to me that in the absence of God there must be also be an absence of the idea of Heaven: a biblical promise of a better place after death – of eternity and perfection. I submit that the idea of Heaven itself would have been a salve to people who died young and laboured hard during life.

    Today we have the interest groups in the western world, so eloquently defined in the essay, trying to impose a living Heaven upon us all. They have tried to create a world of perfection in which everyone is free of ridicule, poverty, adversity, identity marginalization etc., and all of it sanctioned or controlled by the state – buttressed by the law. I think the concept of Equality also stems from that attempt to impose a perfect society. What is removed from this paradigm is personal responsibility.

  4. Greg Southern says:

    This is all juvenile piffle. I do not where to start, so I won’t.