A Stupid Species

I return, once again, to a favorite topic of mine. It was first posted in 2012 and garnered a single online comment. True or not, not is worth a moment’s reflection. I have expanded it a bit.

A former student and good friend of mine some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created a vacuum into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound.  Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that had passed since his return from England with his father in 1868:

“Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”

Bergman, on the other hand, is speaking about art; but we must remember that art creates culture: where the artist goes culture follows.

“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.

In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.

Think of the remarkable works of music, art, sculpture, poetry and even literature that were inspired by a writer, artist, or composer seeking something outside the self through which he or she could find meaning in a meaningless world. Is there any music composed today that can compare with Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B. Minor Mass? or Verdi’s (or Brahms’ or Mozart’s) Requiem? The composers who sought inspiration based on a deep feeling for something besides the self were too numerous to mention. Now there are none — except, perhaps, Leonard Bernstein whose MASS, composed in 1971, stands virtually alone. And the visual works created during the medieval period and the Renaissance were breathtaking, leading the attention of the spectators beyond himself or herself to something worth respecting and even loving — much like the Cathedrals themselves. In literature we need only mention Dostoevsky’s extraordinary novel The Brothers Karamazov or Goethe’s Faust.

What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with a world dominated by technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel):

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.

We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore as we stare mindlessly down at the latest electronic devise designed to capture our minds. We are capable of love but feel only antipathy toward all but a few — if we are aware of others at all. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.

Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we learned in Japan not long ago — and the urge to discover the newest and latest has become a compulsion .

Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the glorious sunset, the deer leaping gracefully over the fence, or the bird soaring high above us. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.

The Self As God

I resubmit here for your consideration some ideas I expressed a few years ago when I first started writing my posts and had even fewer readers than I do now. I have updated and altered it a bit as the ideas seem to be worth a few moment’s thought.

A former student some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created an abyss into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound. Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that has passed since his return from England with his father in 1868:

“Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”

Bergman, on the other hand, is speaking about art, but we must remember that art creates culture; where the artist goes culture follows:

“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.”

In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.

What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel):

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.

We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore. We are capable of love but only “have feelings” for a very few. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.

Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. Physicists might call this “entropy.” If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we learned not too long ago in Japan and are learning anew each day as we read about the latest gun death.

Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the love between people, friendship, the glorious sunset, or the bird soaring high above us against the bright blue sky. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.

Study In Contrasts

I suppose there are those who would say that it makes little sense to study the past: what’s done is done. But I am not one of those people. I think we study the past in order to better understand the present and anticipate the future. Indeed, I have had a special interest in the Medieval period for many years, not because I would like to have lived then, but because I am astonished by the depth of medieval faith and the character of a people who stand in such sharp contrast to most “civilized” people I am aware of. Like so many “uncivilized” people today they seem to have been so much happier than we are, despite their many privations. I have referred in previous blogs to Henry Adams who visited Mont Saint Michel and Chartres for several months and studied the two remarkable cathedrals at great length, reading copiously in the literature of the era, in order to better understand the age in which they were built. He also thought it would help him better understand the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the age in which he lived. In his discussion of Chartres, for example, he remarks, almost in passing, about the depth of commitment the people made who built the great cathedrals:

“According to statistics, in the single century between 1170 and 1270, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral class, which would have cost, according to estimates made in 1840, more than . . . a thousand million dollars [in 1840 dollars!], and this covered only the great churches of that century. The same scale of expenditure had been going on since the year 1000, and almost every parish in France had rebuilt its church in stone; to this day France is strewed with the ruins of this architecture, and yet the still preserved churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries alone, the churches that belong to the romanesque and transition periods, are numbered by hundreds until they reach well into the thousands.. . . Just as the French of the nineteenth century invested their surplus capital in a railway system in the belief that they would make money by it in this life, in the thirteenth century they trusted their money to the Queen of Heaven because of their belief in her power to repay it with interest in the life to come.”

The juxtaposition of ideas in these sentences provokes considerable thought, as does so much of what Adams had to say. To begin with, the devotion to an idea in the medieval period is astonishing and dwarfs anything Adams had witnessed in his lifetime — even the building of the French railway system! And when it comes to expenditure of our precious treasure today, the only possible comparison would be the immense amount of money we spend on what we like to call “defense.”  This suggests that our age exhibits less hope and greater fear than either the age of Henry Adams or the age of the great cathedrals, the age in which Christianity was most influential.

It is an easy inference to say that the birth of industrial capitalism killed Christian belief, for all intents and purposes. But this may be a bit simplistic. Surely, the conviction that a railway system and steam power could take us all to the promised land was widespread in Adams’ day, as is the deeply held belief in our own day that the billions of dollars we spend on the military will keep us safe and happy. Those beliefs have assuredly helped turn people’s attention away from the Christian belief in life after death to life here and now. However, those beliefs pale in contrast with those of the people who had so little in the way of material goods and yet were willing to devote their lives to making the great cathedrals — most of the people who helped build them not living long enough to see them completed. And just consider the staggering numbers of cathedrals built in the period Adams alludes to and the countless number of people who must have been involved in that building — especially considering that they had to haul solid granite boulders of immense size and weight from a quarry five miles outside of Chartres to the top of a hill where the cathedral was built and then raise them to a height of 370′ just to construct the towers at the West entrance! We really have nothing to compare it with in our age, not even putting men on the moon — which very few of us were involved with. And the fact is that most of the things we would point to proudly as accomplishments of modern men and women would reveal beneath the surface the motive of profit and personal gain; so, if we hesitate to claim that capitalism killed Christianity, we can safely say it helped render it irrelevant.

Be that as it may, the contrast that interested Adams most is that between “ignorance  fortified by a certain element of nineteenth century indifference which refuses to be interested in what it cannot understand [and] the thirteenth century which cared little to comprehend anything except the incomprehensible.” Dare I suggest that we share that nineteenth century ignorance born of indifference while at the same time we refuse to recognize our ignorance and arrogantly insist that that there is nothing we cannot comprehend? What Adams found most unsettling, however, was the absence in his age of “the good faith, the depth of feeling, the intensity of conviction” that he found everywhere he looked in 11th and 12th century Europe. Seekers who have attempted to ferret out truths about subsequent ages have tended to echo Adams’ concerns.

In any event,  it was certainly the case that most, if not all, of those working on the cathedrals in the twelfth and thirteenth century were convinced that their efforts would buy them a shorter period in Purgatory and almost certainly an eternity in heaven with the saints and others who shared their views. Thus, while we might want to question their motives, we must remember that the church taught in those times that those who did good deeds in order to get into Heaven would be disappointed. Motive was all: the motive was to do good for its own sake, not for the sake of a reward. The brilliant Henry Adams, who had the childlike gift of being able to transport himself back to another age, is convinced that those who worked on Chartres had only one motive: to create a palace for the Queen of Heaven.

Thus, while we might resist the temptation to draw hasty conclusions about industrial capitalism and the demise of Christianity, once we begin to explore even a brief passage such as this one, we see layers of thought that take us much deeper into an understanding of our age in contrast with that of those ordinary, and extraordinary, (unsophisticated) people so many years ago. People have not changed that much, but the focus of their lives has changed dramatically. While they prepared to defend themselves from attackers, virtually all of those who peopled Europe in the medieval period devoted themselves and their fortunes to the building of monuments to glorify God; we spend our worldly wealth to build weapons of war while we seek longer and more pleasant lives. We do not come off well in such a study of contrasts, since for all of what we call “progress” we are far behind in so many ways those who were dedicated to something outside themselves, who shared a living faith in something greater than themselves and an abiding hope in a better day to come.

In Search Of Soul

I have made passing references to Carl Gustav Jung’s remarkable collection of essays titled Modern Man In Search of a Soul. The book is exceptional in so many ways, but in particular it provides a great many insights into our current cultural malaise and takes us closer to an understanding of its causes. For example, it is a sobering thought to consider that despite our considerable scientific progress and the immense gains in material well-being and health care, we might in fact be poorer than our predecessors. Our blind conviction that the passage of time necessarily entails “progress,” that the latest is the best, may well be a fiction. In one of the later essays in the above book, Jung contrasts our modern age with the medieval period which we tend to equate with blind superstition, brief and painful life spans, and widespread human suffering. Jung suggests otherwise:

How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe, encircled by the course of the sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. Such a life no longer seems real to us, even in our dreams. Natural science has long ago torn this lovely world to shreds. That age lies as far behind as childhood, when our own father was unquestionably the handsomest and strongest man on earth.

The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness. . . . And while man, hesitant and questioning, contemplates a world that is distracted with treaties of peace and pacts of friendship, democracy and dictatorship, capitalism and Bolshevism, his spirit yearns for an answer that will allay the turmoil of doubt and uncertainty.

It is hard to accept the notion that our world may have regressed rather than progressed, hidden as we are behind our piles of material goods, expecting relatively long and painless lives, and diverted by all our electronic toys. But it is worth pondering. The possibility that those who lived in more austere times might be happier than we are was suggested about thirty years before Jung by Henry Adams who visited Chartres and Mount St. Michel in France and came away with the conviction that medieval men and women found peace of mind in a coherent, unified world contemplating eternal verities and devoted to the Virgin Mary. This, according to Adams, rendered their seemingly miserable lives spiritually rich and rewarding, and allowed them to pursue the immensely difficult challenge of building impossibly tall cathedrals, which took generations to complete but always kept their attention directed toward a better world.

One must wonder if our world-view, focused as it is on the present and built around the notion of linear progress and material success, might not be poverty-stricken. Perhaps, after all, we are all worse off for having bought into the notion that this frenzied, incoherent world of ours has brought us closer to the ideal of human happiness. One reads blog posts like those of my friend “Z” in Ecuador and one wonders whether those simple people in “third world” countries are not indeed much happier than we in spite of their poverty and lack of material goods. It’s just possible that those folks know something we don’t.

Lost Piety

A former student and good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, some years back sent me a most interesting comment made by the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman. It keeps coming back to me as one of the most profound insights into modernity’s spiritual malaise. As Carl Gustav Jung once said, modern man is in search of a soul. It’s not clear when he lost it, though some think it was around the time of the industrial revolution and the growth of free-enterprise capitalism. By the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche had pronounced God dead. This has created a vacuum into which we anxiously stare and which continues to both fascinate and confound.  Henry Adams saw this as he reflected on the 35 years that has passed since his return from England with his father in 1868: “Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.”

Bergman is speaking about art, but we must remember that art creates culture; where the artist goes culture follows.“It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it separated from worship. It severed the umbilical cord and lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. The individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. Creative unity and humble anonymity are forgotten and buried relics without significance or meaning. The smallest cuts and moral pains of the ego are examined under the microscope as if they were of eternal importance. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our own loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death.

In a word, we no longer worship God, we worship ourselves. The self has displaced God, or indeed anything outside the self. In his autobiography, Adams tells us that he spent his life searching for meaning and continued to find only frustration. He looked back to see where we had gone wrong. In doing so, he wrote a marvelous study of the cathedrals at Chartres and Mont St. Michel, built to the greater glory of the Virgin Mary. In that study he expresses his astonishment at the power of faith over the entire European population at that time. How else to explain the cathedrals that took generations to build and remain to this day the highest expressions of human love? They reflect precisely the kind of passion and attention-turned-outwards that Bergman finds missing in our art and in our world today.

What we have instead is art that is largely self-expression coupled with technological expertise and amazing devices that allow us to move mountains, race at great speed, and communicate around the world in seconds — even travel to distant places in space and look back at the earth we are rapidly destroying. But, as Adams notes in his autobiography (which is clearly a companion piece for his study of Chartres and Mont St. Michel): “All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.” Medieval men had the power of inspiration, we have the only power of steam and nuclear fission.

We really are a stupid species. We pride ourselves on our accomplishments while we deny our ignorance which is immeasurably greater. We are surrounded by beauty which we ignore. We are capable of love but feel only animus toward all but a few. We have the capacity to reason yet we are unable to think our way out of the simplest difficulty — usually one we have created for ourselves through lack of foresight.

Adams thought history revealed itself as a tendency toward greater and greater complexity, that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of events in a simple unified theory. If he is correct, and I suspect he is, it is almost certainly because humans continue to unleash forces they little understand and can barely control — as we recently learned in Japan. Bergman showed us in his films that the truth is staring us in the face. It’s in the smile of the infant, the glorious sunset, or the bird soaring high above us. We can’t see these things because we are preoccupied with ourselves and the things we have done; we insist upon finding meaning where it doesn’t exist — within ourselves.