Bits and Pieces

After reading a good book there are bits and pieces of insight and even wisdom that float to the top — bits and pieces that deserve special attention and deeper thought. I always underline them and return to them later — which is why I read real books, not electronic substitutes. This way the books become a part of me and I also become a part of them. Readers of these blogs will know that I often return to Christopher Lasch, one of the deepest thinkers I have read who always teaches me something about subjects that interest us both. In reading The Minimal Self — which I have referred to in earlier posts — I have quoted several insights that I think deserve special attention. I post other bits and pieces here:

ON THE SURVIVAL MENTALITY

(Lasch is convinced that we as a culture have entered a survival mode of existence that resembles in important ways the techniques used by the inmates of the death camps during the Second World War. In this regard, he noted):

“. . . It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any numbers of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and to live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow victims — they also insists that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. It is the survivors who try to ‘give meaning to survival,’ while those who come after them and live under conditions seemingly more secure see meaning only in survival itself.”

ART AS REFLECTIVE OF CULTURE

“. . .modernism in its most ‘advanced’ form no longer explores new frontiers of sensibility, new dimensions of reality, but, on the contrary, undertakes a strategic retreat from reality and a regression into a realm . . .’in which mental and perceptual operations are so basic that they cannot sustain any but the most undifferentiated emotions.’ It is hardly necessary to add that in ‘advanced’ art this embodies the survival mentality characteristic of those faced with extreme situations: a radical reduction of the field of vision, a ‘socially approved solipsism,’ a refusal to feel anything, whether pain or pleasure. . . . the weakening of the distinction between the self and its surroundings — a development faithfully recorded by modern art even in its refusal to become representational — makes the very concept of reality, together with the concept of the self, increasingly untenable.”

ON CHILDREN AND THEIR UPBRINGING

“Our culture surrounds children with sexually seductive imagery and information; at the same time, it tries in every possible way to spare them the experience of failure or humiliation. It takes the position that ‘you can be anything you want to be.’ It promises success and gratification with a minimum of effort. Adults spend a great deal of time and effort trying to reassure the child of his importance and of their own love, perhaps in order to allay the suspicion that they themselves have little interest in children. They take pains not to remind the child of his immaturity and dependence. Reluctant to claim the authority of superior experience, parents seek to become their children’s companion. They cultivate a youthful appearance and youthful tastes, learn the latest slang, and throw themselves into their children’s activities. They do everything possible, in short, to minimize the difference between the generations. Recently it has become fashionable to minimize gender differences as well, often — once again — with the best of intentions.”

TRUE CONSERVATISM

“A truly conservative position on culture rejects both enforced conformity and laissez-faire. It attempts to hold society together by means of moral and religious instruction, collective rituals, and a deeply implanted though not uncritical respect for tradition.”

THE ‘HELPING PROFESSIONS’

“All these institutions operate according to the underlying principle that a willingness to cooperate with the proper experts offers the best evidence of ‘adjustment’ and the best hope of personal success, while the refusal to cooperate signifies ’emotional problems’ requiring more sustained therapeutic attention. . . the shift form the authoritative sanctions to psychological manipulation and surveillance. . . [has given rise to] a professional and managerial class that governs society not by upholding authoritative moral standards but by defining normal behavior and by invoking allegedly non-punitive, psychiatric sanctions against deviance.”

Gone is the moral high ground of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so eloquently. It has vanished within the self in which all of reality has been reduced to the “world-for-me.” We are now living in an age that centers on the self, the reductio ad absurdum of solipsism.

Survival Mentality

“The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning to itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping place ever proposed by one man to another.”

William James

It has become a commonplace to remark about the preoccupation with self that defines our current culture. We know all about the “me generation” and have come to learn that Gen-X, in whom we placed so much hope for the future, is even more preoccupied with themselves than their parents. Christopher Lasch, whom I have referenced in previous blogs, is one of the few thinkers to attempt to understand why this has come about. And he is one of the best minds I have encountered to think with about our cultural condition. He likens our present outlook on our world to that of a POW, especially the inmates of Auschwitz, during the Second World War. As Lasch notes regarding our current malaise, in his remarkable book The Minimal Self:

“People have lost confidence in the future. Faced with an escalating arms race, an increase in crime and terrorism, environmental deterioration, and the prospect of long-term economic decline, they have begun to prepare for the worst, sometimes by building fallout shelters and laying in provisions, more commonly by executing a kind of emotional retreat from the long-term commitments that presuppose a stable, secure, and orderly world. . . . Everyday life has begun to pattern itself on the survival strategies forced on those exposed to extreme adversity. Selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live only one day at a time — these techniques of emotional self-management, necessarily carried to extremes under extreme conditions, in a  more moderate form have come to shape the lives of ordinary people under the ordinary conditions of a bureaucratic society widely perceived as a far-flung system of total control.”

According to Lasch, this has given rise to a siege mentality as we embrace a survival ethic — not unlike those in the camps such as Auschwitz who struggled to remain human while they gradually retreated within themselves.

“In fact, the siege mentality is much stronger in those who know Auschwitz only at second-hand than in those who lived through it. It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any number of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow-victims — they also insist that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. [In contrast, we exhibit]  a diminished capacity to imagine a moral order transcending [our own experience], which alone can give meaning [to our lives].”

This is heavy stuff, indeed. As the quote from William James at the top of this page suggests, mere survival for its own sake is hardly a lofty human ideal. What truly matters is what survives — what sort of person or culture. It’s about character and moral fiber, not about breathing in and out for as long as possible. We don’t talk much about character any more, and at present it is certainly the case that the moral high ground seems to have flattened after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr leaving the landscape rather barren, which is something to be deeply regretted. And there are many signs around us that point to our ignorance of the past and loss of hope in the future in our preoccupation with our own present experience. As the ads tell us, “Do It Now!”  This attests to the very malaise Lasch describes; his analysis seems to me to be quite plausible.

But he does not despair. He does not see the various movements to save the planet, stop the nuclear arms race, show concern about our shared world, together with the “growing criticism of consumerism and high technology, criticism of the ‘masculine’ psychology of conquest and competition” as complete answers, but they do “hold out the best hope for the future.” Though Lasch would not have us abandon hope for radical changes in the political landscape, at present politics does not seem to provide a way out, given the stranglehold those “profoundly undemocratic” corporations have on the political process. None the less, there are things each one of us can do within the limits of our own capacities to mitigate corporate greed and the destruction of the planet, while we seek to restore the moral high ground, reaching out to others and turning our attention toward a world filled with beauty and finding joy in the things and people that surround us — and certainly not abandoning hope in the future altogether. This would allow us to avoid the “survival mentality” of which Lasch speaks and which threatens to suffocate the human spirit.