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.

Counting Medals

The original Olympic Games dated from the eighth century. Legend has it that the games were initiated by Hercules after completing his many feats of strength and courage to thank Zeus. They were held during a “Sacred Truce. . . and no war between the Greek city-states ever prevented them from being held.”* The games involved various athletic contests such as wrestling, boxing, running, horse racing and the immensely popular chariot races. While they were intensely competitive they were praised by Plato for the refreshment and “wholeness” they bestowed on every participant. All hostilities were halted during the games — which was no mean feat since the Greek city-states were a bellicose group. “If states [that were] engaged in hostilities failed to lay down their arms for the duration of the truce a heavy fine was inflicted, its size calculated according to the number of troops involved.”*  The point is that the Games were regarded from the beginning as a time of peace and fellow-feeling among a group of people who had trouble getting along most of the time.

Contrast that with the modern games which have now a Summer and a Winter phase and involve more sporting events than anyone can possibly remember and pit one nation against another to see which can accumulate the most medals (“We’ve got more than you do: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” ). As mentioned, there was always an element of competition, but it used to be among athletes and not among nations — or even the city-states — though there was doubtless some pride involved when a local man did well.

This is not to say that in today’s Olympics friendships are not formed and dialogue opened among athletes from different countries — all to the good. In addition, the athletes themselves enjoy what has to be a most remarkable educational experience — win or lose. And the athleticism is truly extraordinary. But the modern version of the Olympic Games reveals sharp contrasts with the original version.

The Olympic Games never involved professional athletes who were paid to participate –at least not until very recent times. To make matters worse, today’s athletes are beholden to their sponsors. Recently the I.O.C. had to employ extreme measures (in the spirit of the Olympics, I would think) to forbid the athletes from using social media to promote the products their sponsors are selling.  But — led by the U.S. athletes — the Olympians are incensed, as a recent story attests:

LONDON – American athletes risked disqualification by leading a revolt against the International Olympic Committee on Monday and its draconian laws of forbidding competitors from using social media to promote their sponsors.

It just gets worse. Not only do nations vie with one another to pile up the largest treasure in medals of all colors but we now must also have mounted anti-terrorist weapons on tall buildings and increased security lest someone repeat the horrors of Munich 40 years ago. The air is tense, even electric. In a word, the games are no longer about a time of peace amid the chaos of everyday warfare, but an extension of that warfare onto the court and the field of play — which is no longer play at all, but a contest to see who can get the most gold. Symbolic? I suppose so. But also sad.

The athletes, for the most part, seem to have the idea. To a large extent they exhibit the true spirit of the Olympic Games as the Greeks envisioned them. But the things that separate the ancient Games from the modern ones are the crass commercialism of the latter and the exploitation of the athletes by their corporate sponsors, N.B.C. television, and the countries that send them for the purpose of boosting national pride. But most distressing is the fact that these countries refuse to lay down their arms — even for this brief period — putting me in mind of Handel’s Messiah which asks the probing question: why do the nations so furiously rage together? Why indeed.


*Michael Grant: The Rise of the Greeks (New York: Macmillan Co.).