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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New York: YES!

While the Congress of the United States prepares for what the NRA calls “the battle of the century” over gun control, the legislatures in the “blue” states try to do the right thing on their own. The “red” states, of course, are passing bills to allow teachers to carry guns to class with them, but the blue states are taking the high road. New York recently passed a tough gun control bill as the following article attests:

New York (CNN) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo beefed up New York’s gun-control laws on Tuesday by signing into law a new package of firearm and mental health regulations that mark the nation’s first since last month’s massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

Cuomo, a self-described gun owner, said the December 14 tragedy spurred lawmakers to action and called it a “common sense” measure before enacting what are widely seen as America’s toughest gun laws.

“You can overpower the extremists with intelligence and common sense,” he said before inking the deal in Albany.

There are two things about this signing that I find particularly interesting. For one, Cuomo is a gun owner and yet he sees the wisdom in taking a restrained approach to gun purchase. After all, gun control is about control, not elimination. The bloat and rhetoric that comes from the political right on this issue is positively galling, especially the NRA’s most recent personal attack against the President and any who would have the audacity to try to interfere with our “Second Amendment rights.” I have never heard anyone talk about taking guns away from people — especially hunting and target weapons. The movement here is to eliminate the purchase of weapons of mass destruction, if you will, assault weapons that fire off hundreds of rounds a minute and are designed to kill people, not deer or pheasants.

The second interesting thing is that Cuomo’s appeal is to “intelligence and common sense,” and he is spot on. There is so much heat and so little light in the “debate” over tougher gun control it is refreshing to read that a group has sat down and put together a bill that is designed to introduce sanity into a situation that borders on the insane. Clearly gun control will not solve the problem of violence in this country, but it is a necessary first step.

As you may have read, while Cuomo was signing this bill conspiracy theorists were harassing good Samaritans in Connecticut whose hearts went out to the children who survived the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut as we are told in the following story:

A man who found six children in his driveway in Newtown, Conn., after their teacher had been shot and killed in last month’s school massacre has become the target of conspiracy theorists who believe the shootings were staged.

One wonders what makes people like this tick when they write hate notes and repeatedly phone and then hang up on a 69 year-old retired man whose crime was that he reached out to help a group of youngsters who were traumatized by the shooting in their school. The very idea that the shooting itself was somehow “staged” in order to allow the government to take steps to restrict future purchase of assault weapons is over the edge and would require Freud working together with Adler and Jung to figure out how on earth those minds came so badly unhinged. One can only hope that the number of these nutters is very small and is dwarfed by the numbers of people whose hearts went out to those children and their families. I expect that is the case.

In any event, despite the fact that the Congress seems unable to enact legislation that would offend the NRA, states like New York have shown how it could be done. It won’t be nearly as effective as a Federal policy, but it is a step in the right direction.