Death of Soul?

In his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Balzac’s classic Père Goriot, Peter Connor asks the provoking question:

“Is Balzac the artist who has recorded for our modern era the death of soul? The death of all belief in something greater, grander than the individual?”

The question is rhetorical and Balzac makes it quite clear what he means to say in his many novels and stories that comprise the Human Comedy which he wrote in the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century. In his novel The Country Doctor, for example, he has this remarkable passage:

“With the monarchy we lost honor, with the religion of our fathers, Christian virtue, with our sterile governments, patriotism. These principles only exist partially instead of animating the masses. . . . Now, shoring up society, we have no other support than egoism. Woe betide the country thus constituted. Instead of believers, we have interest.”

“Interest” here, of course, refers not only to the money made from money, but self-interest — or, better yet, short-term self-interest which has become all the rage not only in France, but also in this country where the business model provides a template for all human endeavors, including health care and education. Profits now and screw tomorrow…. and the planet.

But, ignoring for the moment the reference to the restoration of the monarchy in France after Napoleon (and the oblique reference to the “reign of terror” in which clerics were one of the favorite targets of the Jacobites), let us focus instead on the loss of virtue. The “death of God,” as Nietzsche would have it. And recall that Karl Gustav Jung echoes Balzac’s plaintive cry when he wrote a set of essays in the 1930s and collected them in a book titled Modern Man in Search of Soul. All of these men, and others like them, have noted that the modern era (and especially the post-modern era I would add) have displaced soul with stuff. We live in a disenchanted age. It is an age of scientism and capitalism, the one ignoring intuition and insisting that the scientific method is the only way to the Truth; the other giving birth to a crass materialism that places emphasis on things over the ineffable. We have ignored Hamlet’s observation:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant natural philosophy, or science.  Indeed, ours is a “commodified culture” as Robert Heilbronner would have it, an era in which the new car or the flat-screen TV are much more important to most of us than virtue, or the development of what used to be called “character.” And we have the audacity to think that there are no problems our scientists, mostly technicians these days, cannot solve.

Balzac’s many novels and stories — more than 90 of them — comprise “a documentary of the cramped modern soul, a soul shown to be cynical, pitiless, insensible, gluttonous, scheming, and, perhaps, above all, indifferent,” as Conner would have it. In his classic  Père Goriot, which many think is the cornerstone of Balzac’s Human Comedy, he describes in exacting detail the residents of a boarding house where the novel takes place:

“There was not a soul in the house who took any trouble to investigate the various chronicles of misfortunes, real or imaginary, related to the rest. Each regarded the others with indifference, tempered by suspicion; it was a natural result of their relative positions. Practical assistance not one of them could give, this they all knew, and they had long since exhausted their stock of condolences over previous discussions of their grievances. . . . There was not one of them but would have passed a blind man begging in the street, not one that felt moved to pity by a tale of misfortune.”

That was France in the nineteenth century. And it was written by a novelist who, we all know, makes things up. Surely this is not the real world, not the world of these United States in the year of our Lord 2018? And yet with the exception of the remarkable people Jill Dennison tells us about weekly in her blog, most of us seem to fit the pattern of the lodgers Balzac is describing in his novel, sad to say. We do seem to be indifferent to others, preoccupied with our very own selves, turned in on ourselves, perhaps posting a selfie on social media in hopes of getting yet another “like.” We glorify our indifference to others by calling it “tolerance,” and delude ourselves into thinking we are better than we are.

It is certainly the case that many Christians have given a bad name to Christianity. We can see with our mind’s eye those who drive each Sunday in their gas-guzzling SUV to a mega-church where they sit in comfortable chairs, sipping an espresso coffee and watching the frantic preacher on a television set near the book store where his latest book is on sale, along with other memorabilia, including, no doubt, tee shirts. Such people abound who go by the name “Christian” while all the time indulging themselves, festering hate in their hearts, supporting a president who is the embodiment of hate, fear, and unbridled greed.

As Balzac notes, and this is not just a novelist speaking, we have lost religion, “Christian virtue.” And this includes not only so many of those who pretend to be Christians, but many of those who have rejected religion altogether, all religions. Along with “more things in heaven and earth” we have indeed lost our souls.  If we have any doubts we need only reflect on how so many of us celebrate Christmas these days.

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5 thoughts on “Death of Soul?

  1. Yes and no, I think.

    There clearly has been a soul-devouring rise in consumerism and materialism since the end of World War II and the huge jump in the American economy the war produced. The Baby Boom generation has been the worst of that lot, wasteful and greedy in a never-ending chase for bigger houses, bigger, more gas-guzzling cars, the destructive spending on college sports, the best “toys.” All the while the Boomers have moaned about taxes, when, in the 1950s and early 1960s their parents had many tax rates of 65 percent or higher that far more met the social contract — rates that paid for much of the infrastructure, expanded access to higher ed, etc.

    But historically in Western culture hasn’t there has always been the chase for bigger and more, often at the expense and exploitation of other human beings, as Luther, Dickens, Twain, Conrad, Riis remind us? For centuries, the rich and powerful in Europe existed on envy, greed, feudalism, imperialism and exclusion: big homes, manors, palazzos; hoarding education and often literacy to themselves (mostly men). America, from pre-colonial days through at least 1914, built much of its material wealth on land grabs, murdering and corralling Native Americans, slavery, the exploitation of immigrants and child labor–all of that the behavior of a soulless nation.

    Christ preached a breaking-away from materialism and the hierarchy of the Pharisees, but very quickly, the “church” created and enforced a system of control, twisting the Gospels for political and personal power, etc., ex-communicating, torturing and killing those who challenge the church. That has continued over the centuries and persists now. These days, at least in the West, who seeks to live a super-simple, contemplative life is often viewed and mocked as an oddity. It would be wonderful if we lived more true to Christ, Buddha, Native American faiths. But we’ve always seemed incapable of it,

    • I don’t find a “no” in your comment! You seem to agree with me. I thank you for that.
      I have written and thought about this for a half-century (!). The first chapter of “Alone In The Labyrinth,” as I suspect you know, deals in large part with this issue, as does the whole of “Inverted Consciousness From Dante to Derrida.” I know you have read much of what I have said, but Henry Adams said it much better in his study of The Chartres Cathedral and Mont St. Michael — which I recommend, because the middle ages, despite the corruption within the Church, to which you point, found Europeans devoted to God and to a life after this one which was viewed as a veil of tears. They had no doubt whatever about a better life to come.
      The point was driven home to me when I visited Chartres Cathedral myself a few years back and happened to enter the Cathedral on a Sunday while the evening service was going on. There were eight or ten elderly folks in the choir and the priest and a couple off alter boys were delivering the service. The entire Cathedral was dark end empty except for those few people. I saw the bare floor where penitents spent hours in past ages on their knees praying to the Virgin Mary to make their lives a bit less wretched. Outside, on the other hand, there was the noise of the motors of cars and motorcycles finishing up a day of celebration, touring the town and leaving in a long, smelly, noisy line toward the East. The parking lot across from the Cathedral still had a few cars belonging to the folks that had been attending the week-end car show. It was a stark contrast and a microcosm of the age in which we live. I wanted to call my second book “Lost Piety: The Self As God,” because I thought it a more appropriate title. The publisher was having none of it. But that is what has happened.
      Thanks again for the good comment.

  2. Thanks for this wonderfully written expose, Hugh. Sadly, I agree with all but one point. I don’t think the loss of one’s soul has as much to do with a loss of belief in God or a religion, but the loss of one’s humanity and all of the values humanity has come to espouse. Born and raised Roman Catholic, I have chucked that church and all organized religion. I’m not sure what I believe as far as a deity is concerned. But I don’t lose any sleep over those questions because living a virtuous is far more important to me. I agree that we are losing our souls to self-interest.

    • Well said. I do tend to agree with Balzac that we have lost a belief in anything “greater and grander” than ourselves. That’s the sad truth. Religion is a vague term and does not simply mean a member of an organized religion. By no means.

  3. Nice post, Hugh, and it applies via a different slant to my life here. Ah, the ‘death of soul’ — what a perfect title to pair with yesterday’s art workshop at the museum. I worked with about 30 people, ranging from kindergarten age to about 45, all under a protective umbrella to support families w/abuse… a few of the people had eyes that looked totally dead/void of emotion… by the end of the day, they seemed to be connecting with humanity, and almost every participant gave a break-your-bones final hug – some of them more than one hug.

    And yes, materialism seems to be a growing virus, easily spread from person to person until it affects the fabric of a culture….

    ….. until next time online – signing off!

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