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.

Genius

Why do we shy away from terms such as “genius,” and “talent”? Ours is an egalitarian age, to be sure, and we insist that all be treated equally, but the notion that all are the same is not a claim — moral or otherwise — that can be substantiated. People are not all the same. Some are taller than others, some are faster than others, some are simply better than others — as we can plainly see today. And there are persons with genuine talents that others lack. And there are some, a few, who can lay claim to the title of “genius.”

Consider the fact that Mozart died when he was 35 years of age. By that time he has composed 600 musical works, starting at age 5. He performed before royalty at a very early age and was the darling of his times. But we might also note Honoré de Balzac, the novelist, who wrote 90 short stories, novellas, and novels, including the “Human Comedy,” a host of novels focusing on human foibles and, among other things, drawing attention to the dangers of wealth in the lives of ordinary people. And we must not forget Anthony Trollope who worked full-time for the Post Office in England and still managed to write 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and a few books on travel. But quantity proves nothing without quality: the works of the men noted above were exceptional by any standards. And some, like Cervantes, George Eliot, or Jane Austen, created fewer works but must also be allowed the title of “genius.” Goethe spent his life writing Faust, regarded as one of the most remarkable works of art ever created by man. The same is true of Edward Gibbon who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In any event,  we need not resort to data to show that some are more prolific than others, some have been touched by the Muse again and again, to argue that some people are simply different from others. Just as there are master criminals and politicians who lie at a record pace, there are also extraordinary human beings, of both sexes, who can legitimately be called “genius.” Such people simply stand out and ought to be regarded as the best of us. We revere the exceptional athletes and even call some of them (too many of them?) GOAT — the Greatest of All Time. We do not hesitate to allow that certain human beings are better athletes, but we refuse to acknowledge that some humans are also better piano players, better composers, better novelists, better human beings — in the case of those among us who can legitimately be regarded as saints (such as Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer).

It is one thing to insist that all humans ought to be treated alike, that fairness is defined by our demand that no one be discriminated against. But we must, at the same time, allow that discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. It allows us to separate the truly great works or art, for example, from the pretenders. It allows us to determine that certain works of music are simply better than others, more complex and more rewarding to the attentive listener. And it allows us to identify the few truly outstanding human beings who stand out among the rest of us.

Moral equality is a good thing. But the notion that discrimination is a bad thing and that all humans are alike in all important respects is simply wrong-headed. And, more to the point, it disguises from us the fact that there are men and women out there who can legitimately lay claim to the title “genius,” folks who set the bar very high for the rest of us, but who make us aware that some of us have achieved in their lifetime — sometimes a very short lifetime — more than the rest of us. These are the people we should hold up as examples of what humans can be, not those who are in the news almost daily working hard to make their way into the Guinness Book of Records or score the most points before their ACL is torn and they must retire from sports.

I recently read a rather self-involved editorial by the skier Lindsey Vonn recounting her many victories on the slopes — along with her many injuries and astonishing recoveries. She is a remarkable athlete and worthy of admiration. But she pales when compared with Mozart, Austen, Balzac, or Trollope who can in all fairness be regarded as geniuses. It is a word that applies to only a few. But we need to remind ourselves who they are and what remarkable things they accomplished in their day.

Because we are not all alike. Some are simply more remarkable than others — both for what they have accomplished and for what they have not.