Freud And The Poets

Late in his life, as he was dying from the agonies of cancer and insisting that he only be treated with an occasional aspirin, Sigmund Freud noted that his “discovery” of the human unconscious mind was down to the poets.  As he wrote, “Not I,  but the poets, discovered the unconscious.” By the word “poet” he meant artists who work with words, such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky — the latter having written what Freud regarded as the greatest novel ever. Indeed, Shakespeare, as we all acknowledge, provides innumerable insights into the human condition and Dostoevsky not only explores the human unconscious mind but can be said to have discovered the duality in the human mind. His first novel, The Double, depicts a man who gradually loses his mind and goes to work to find he is already there.

But we might do well to pay attention to what Freud says, despite the fact that few read him any more and he has been dismissed by so many — even a great many of those who owe their profession to him. He was correct about so many things and even when he was wrong he had important things to say about the human mind and about the struggles we all have to make to maintain what we call “civilization.”

Ernst Cassirer said that poets create culture, which is the intellectual and emotional shell we surround ourselves with in order to help aid us in our struggle to maintain civilization — “the will to live in common,” as Ortega y Gasset would have it. It takes determination, according to Freud, because it requires restraint and even repression of the basic impulses to violence that dwell at the center of the human psyche. And this is an everyday struggle. Civilization, according to Freud, is the result of the sublimation of those instincts and the redirection of them outward in the form of the creations and discoveries that make our world larger and more interesting. And who better to lead us in this struggle than those creative artists, including the poets, who bring us out of ourselves and take us into a wider and deeper world, the world of imagination that enriches what we like to call the “real world”?

What is required, of course, if we are to join the poets and artists in their journey, is what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” This requires what he called “poetic faith,” an effort of imagination that is becoming increasingly difficult for growing numbers of people whose sensibilities have been dulled by an entertainment industry requiring no effort of any kind, much less an effort of the human imagination. These days it’s all “out there” and we need only sit and tune in. But we miss so much and in the process we become less human in so many ways because our interactions with others require an active imagination and without interaction with others we become lost within ourselves. Some, including myself, would say this ship has already sailed.

In any event, we have become less and less interested in “the will to live in common” and increasingly, as Ortega would have it, “hermetically sealed” from the real world and unable to use our imaginations to build a bridge and walk with the poets and artists into a world which is truly rich and full of delight — all of which we miss in our preoccupation with our selves.

The place of the poet is to aid us in the effort to save culture, while at the same time we are urged to question it and wrestle with the deeper questions about the worth of our culture as we struggle to achieve true selfhood;  and in the process we strengthen and preserve civilization itself by enlarging our world and ourselves enabling us to engage something greater than ourselves. Freud warned us early in the last century that the preservation of civilization requires effort and it appears that as we increasingly ignore the help of the poets he admired so much that effort is becoming increasingly difficult for a great many people to make. It is easier to simply turn on the television or check out social media; and we are well aware that as humans we dearly love to take the path of least resistance.


We, Thee, and Me

There are lessons to be learned from looking at such things as the Protestant Reformation, the break in the dam that held devout Europeans for so long close to the bosom of the Catholic Church.

Put simply, perhaps too simply, the break with the Catholic Church marked a radical change in the world view of the vast majority of Europeans. From identifying with a major Authority figure that demanded obedience and exacted tribute suddenly (from an historical perspective) men and women were on  their own. With the invention of the printing press the Bible was available to an increasingly literate population and folks were being told that it was up to them to determine right and wrong and find their own way to Heaven. They were no longer to be shown the way, though it was clear form the Bible in their hand. In a word, their mind-set went in a very few years from We, to Thee, to Me. The individual was born and the Enlightenment brought with it a new fascination with human reasoning powers and a sudden awareness of human rights — with little discussion of the responsibilities that went along with those rights.

To be sure, there were thinkers like Immanuel Kant in Germany whose profound books wrestled with the new awareness of ethics based on human reasoning powers, and Kant stressed the priority of duties over rights — without the former the latter make no sense whatever. But few read Kant and many who read him didn’t understand him. And in any event thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke were busy constructing political theories that made the individual prior to the community of which they were a part. The concept of the “social contract” stressed the benefits to the individual over the state. What’s in it for me?

If we think back to the political thinking of folks like Thomas Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle we realize what a radical change this was. To the ancients, the state was prior to the individual in the sense that no human being could be regarded as in any sense human without membership in a political community. Political communities brought with them laws and the peace of mind that made possible the growth of intellection and the creation of beautiful works of art, the development of our human potential. Membership in communities made possible such things as language which is not necessary for the hermit in the cave who lives alone and cares about no one else and is therefore less than human. The remnants of this view found their way into the writing of such thinkers as Ortega y Gasset early in the last century who warned us about the dawning of a “new barbarism” and also remind us that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common.” The Enlightenment had given us the notion of the common good which groups of virtuous individuals were supposed to realize made possible their own good. But by this time “Me” had gained ascendency over “We and Thee,” though folks like Adam Smith insisted that others are necessary for each of us to fully develop our sympathetic nature. Still, it’s a case of what others can do for me, not the other way around. Increasingly it was the case that the individual is seen as one who lives in a social body because it is of benefit to him.

Today we have groups and individuals that insist upon being recognized and accepted for what they are. Everyone is a victim and everyone is shouting (at the same time) about their rights. Rather than think about how greatly they benefit from membership in a social body we clamor for the benefits we insist we have coming simply because we are who we are — whoever we are. The alteration in mind-set is radical: from seeing the whole as prior to the part we now see things the other way around. The part is prior to the whole. From a preoccupation with my rights it is a very short step to insisting “it’s all about me.”

This transition is made clear, if we stop to think about it, from a consideration of our attitude toward such things as income taxes. We resent having to pay a part of our hard-earned income to the State in order to have them take that money and do with it we know-not-what. We really don’t know, we just know it’s our money and THEY are taking it away from us. In fact, however, the concept of taxation is consistent with any sound political philosophy: the State needs funds in order to protect its citizens. Today, for example, despite the fact that the lion’s share of our tax money goes toward what we call “Defense” it also takes care of the infra-structure, supports education and also such things as health care and the preservation of the environment. Or it is supposed to until or unless some clown declares himself Lord Muck-A-Muck and decides to cripple those agencies that are designed to make life better for the majority of our citizens.

In any event, the point I would like to stress is that radical alteration in worldview, from We and Thee to Me. We demand our rights and ignore our responsibilities. We insist that the State exists to serve us and not the other way around. We applaud John Kennedy when reminds us not to ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, but we don’t think about the demands this places upon us, demands that our need to live with others requires that we recognize that others are just as important as we ourselves and we are a part of a whole that is ever so much greater than our little part.


Uneasy Civilization

In 1929 Sigmund Freud wrote his famous and truly remarkable book Civilization and Its Discontents. The latter term, in German, is “Unbehagen,” which means, literally, “uneasiness.” In any event, Freud pointed out that civilization is bought at a price. He never suggested that the price was not worth paying, but those who followed him and had a much less penetrating insight into the trials and tribulations of civilized people decided that the price was not worth paying. Freud worried about repression and sublimation (which actually resulted in creative activity) whereas his acolytes preached that mental health consists in the absence of restraint in order to foster increased pleasure and “realizing one’s potential.”

What followed in this country within a decade or two was a plethora of pop-psychologists telling Americans that repression was a bad thing and the values that had created what we call “civilized society” were a sham. Following Nietzsche, they reduced virtues to values and then reduced values to subjective feelings. Gone were notions of hard work, diligence, courage, self-control, discipline, duty, and responsibility in the name of what was loosely regarded as emotional honesty, encouraging people to feel whatever they wanted to feel and eliminating inhibitions in an attempt to throw off the shackles of a restrictive culture. In the 1960s this movement bore the fruit of the hippy rebellion against “the Establishment” and the rejection in our universities of such things as history which was regarded as “irrelevant.”

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset told us some time ago that civilization is above all else the will to live in common. To the extent that we want to throw off the “shackles” of restraint and self-control and become fixated on our own self-improvement, we become more self-absorbed and less willing to preserve and protect what must be regarded as the remnants of civilization, the will to live in common and direct attention toward the common good. We worry less and less about others and regard them, for the most part, as avenues to or away from our own happiness. In the process our “lesser natures” are brought to the surface and the urges that were restrained are turned loose to wreak havoc on others around us. Recall that Freud never said that repression was a bad thing. It merely brought about an “uneasiness.” He would later call this “neurosis,” its clinical name. For Freud neuroses are treatable. Lack of character is not treatable: it is permanent.

Thus, we have inherited a view of human nature that is, in large measure, the result of a misreading of Freud and at the center of this view sits the figure of Donald Trump, the reductio ad absurdum of the “let it all hang out” mantra. He rails at the media for insisting that his alternative facts are complete lies and, lately, he rails against the court system that would restrain his hatred of culturally diverse peoples around the world — all in the name of saving this country from terrorism (which he is convinced only he can do). This man is the embodiment of the lack of restraint that has come to characterize this society in which civilization, as we know it, is in danger of withering away. He embodies the lack of restraint and “honesty” that increasing numbers of people have come to regard as the only prizes worth having. Welcome to the New Age of Barbarism with the King Barbarian at its head! Small wonder that he has so many devoted followers. Never say “no.”

I have sworn not to write about this man any more and in this post I am obviously breaking my promise to myself and a few others who care about such things. But I do believe it is necessary to point out that we have arrived at a new age in which the values that created civilization have all but disappeared and the green light has been given to our baser instincts to go forth and eradicate. With his narcissism, vulgarity, fractured language, bigotry, contempt for those who disagree with him, and his determination to strike out against any and all who might thwart his will, the man is a symbol, a token, the personification of the decaying core of a civilization he would help bring down about our very ears. He has nothing but contempt for those few among us who might urge restraint and self-control in the name of a willingness to live with others, a determination to protect and save civilization (not to mention the planet) — for all its “uneasiness.”

The Babysitter

I have been thinking about the subject of my most recent post, the peculiar twists and turns of the collective psyches of Donald Trump’s minions. It is a fascinating subject and like a kid at the circus who can’t tear himself away from the freak show despite the fact that he keeps telling himself to leave and get some cotton candy, I am drawn to the perplexing question: what on earth are these people thinking — the followers of Trump, that is? I have come up with an analogy that has helped me see more clearly.

Years ago when my wife and I had to leave for a couple of days we decided to leave our two sons, about seven and eight respectively, with one of my tennis players who was a Junior and someone we liked and trusted. Now, we were a bit strict and passed along some of the ground rules to Kathy (we’ll call her that because that’s her name), including the fact that the boys could not have dessert until they ate all the food on their plates. That is, they didn’t have to eat something like, say, broccoli, if they simply couldn’t do so, but they didn’t get desert if they didn’t eat it. Yeah, it was a bribe. But it worked like a charm and allowed the boys to make their own minds up about what they could and couldn’t eat. They usually cleaned their plates.

In any event, after we returned we discovered that Kathy let the boys do whatever they wanted to do, eat what they wanted to eat, stay up way past their bedtime, watch whatever TV shows they wanted to watch, and she played with them like a third child. They had a blast. All restraints were off and this wonderful girl was their best friend. We had a dickens of a time getting them to settle down afterwards, needless to say.

Trump is the babysitter and his minions are the boys — though they have a collective IQ well below that of my two sons even at seven and eight. The babysitter has told them the old rules no longer apply. They are free to do and say whatever they want with no repercussions whatever — as long as they restrain from criticizing the babysitter. That’s Taboo. From what we can gather of the rallies, it is bedlam with shouting obscenities not only allowed but encouraged. They are rallies of hatred and all restraints are off as the minions can scream all those insults that have been repressed for years.

In Dostoevsky’s seminal novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov has a theory that since God is dead “all is permitted.”  This theory eventually drives him mad, but in the meantime he infects his adoring half-brother with the doctrine who then summarily kills their father. In other words, in Dostoevsky’s view, the absence of moral restraints can lead to murder and madness. This is certainly the view of that author who was, by all accounts, one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 19th century. But, after all, what does a nineteenth century Russian author have to tell us about ourselves in this sophisticated day and age?

Civilization, according to Ortega y Gasset the Spanish intellectual, is the will to live in common. In the minds of Trump’s minions it is all about self and letting it all hang out. Restraint and denial are things of the past. Donald is telling them that “all is permitted.” If this were to become the rule of thumb in our nation the suggestions of the two men I have mentioned would lead us to the conclusion that our civilization is at risk and as a people we may well be headed for murder and madness. When I shy away from this dire conclusion I recall my two sons, whom I love dearly, and the looks on their faces when we told them that the fun was over and things were back to normal. Kids love to play and to have their way. But maturity and growth require self-control and self-denial because the rewards later on are much greater and their absence leads to chaos. Our boys have learned that, but I wonder about Trump’s minions. Are they capable of growing and maturing?

Freud On Trumpism

In an attempt to understand the “Trump Phenomenon,” by which I do not refer to the man himself but to the growing numbers of people who swallow his swill and are ready to take up arms and blindly follow him anywhere he leads, I begin with a section of one of my earlier posts on Freud’s attempts to understand violence.

Freud was convinced that humans develop a conscience, or what he called the “super-ego,” as a result of repression. Parents say “no” to the child and the child represses his natural urges toward aggression and destruction. Thus, what we call “civilization,” in the form of parental and societal repression, thwarts the natural instincts common to us all and they are turned inwards toward the self and become what we call a bad conscience. We feel bad about doing those things we were told not to do as we grow up.

When the restraints of civilization are loosened, as they are in a permissive society, the aggressive instincts turn outward again in the form of violence toward others. Given the fact that, thanks in large measure to a misreading of Freud, ours is an increasingly permissive society where we rarely say “no,” we can expect to see increasing levels of violence. We no longer turn the aggressive instincts toward ourselves in the form of a bad conscience, we turn them loose on others in the form of rage and violent actions: we let it “all hang out.” When guns are readily available, as they are in this society, this can easily take the form of an increase in what we call “gun-deaths.” Couple the lack of repression with a growing sense of powerlessness among people [who see others as obstacles to be overcome and are] used to getting their way as children and we can begin to understand why violence is on the rise in this country.

I should begin by saying that this post, “Freud On Violence,” was written several years ago and still remains the most popular post I have written, drawing the major portion of my “hits” each week, even now. I am unable to explain it, but there it is. In any event, I do think Freud can help us understand why Donald Trump is so popular. In a word, Trump embodies the permissive society. He promises his followers a world without restraint. He empowers people who are frustrated by their seeming impotence in an overcrowded society that inhibits the free activities of people who have no idea what the word “no” means.

Given that violence is an expression of aggressive instincts encouraged by a permissive society, and given that Donald Trump embodies this permissiveness (given his unfettered hatred and fear-mongering, his outspoken condemnation of all things and peoples that seem to interfere with free action), it is not difficult to see why many people are drawn to him. These folks want to live in a world in which they can do all those things they have been told they can do as children — which is to say, whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. He is anti-establishment in the sense that he is opposed to any sort of restraint on the baser instincts that are at the core of our essential human being. Thus he speaks for those many who feel the strong urge to express themselves in outward violence, who lack a super-ego, or conscience, and who find civilized society confining and repressive.

Ortega y Gasset once said that “civilization is before all the will to live in common. A man is uncivilized, a barbarian, in the degree to which he does not take others into account.” What this involves, I take it, is tolerance for others, all others. And it involves a willingness to avoid doing things and saying things that might hurt others no matter how strongly we feel the urge. The alternative is Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Ladies and Gentlemen

Tennis has always been a large part of my life and while I cannot play any more I watch as much as I can on the television and especially look forward to Wimbledon (“The Championships”) every year at this time. Having played on grass only once in my life and thinking at the time I had died and gone to Heaven,  I watch with dismay as the back-court area turns to dirt and the beautiful grass gradually disappears; I recall another era when the path between the baseline and the service line became worn down with players serving and volleying, chasing every serve quickly to the next. But no more. With the new equipment, it has become fairly easy to pass someone going to the net, so the vast majority of players stay on the baseline and hit the ball as hard as they can — often with good effect — and make the grass disappear.

I also watch with dismay players such as the young Australian I watched recently (who will not be named) with pierced ears and artfully shaven head who prowled the court with a permanent scowl — while he wasn’t “tanking” the entire third set — and was cheered on by his entourage (I suppose) all dressed in yellow shirts with “AUS” printed on them. They, too, looked like something the cat dragged out from under the sofa. The players all wear white, as required, but that’s the only remnant of the “old days” when ladies and gentlemen seldom, if ever, resorted to histrionics and who played the game for a trophy and not for millions of dollars. (Uh oh, I hear some say. Here he goes again. And yes, here I go again.)

I have blogged about the demise of manners before and I will not go back there except to expand on something I wrote a couple of years ago about this sad phenomenon — sad because manners are all about being mindful of the other, and it has become abundantly clear that the other has dropped off the radar of increasing numbers of folks in the Western world — perhaps because there are so damn many of us. Anyway, here’s the clip (with additions):

As humans emerged from the “dark ages” they began to show greater interest in their behavior toward others. It began with courtly behavior and the recognition of our “betters.” But it expanded in important ways as we learned to control our emotions. It was an essential element in what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process.” In 1530, for example, we find Erasmus admonishing folks to be “reasonable, courteous and respectful in word or gesture.” One of my favorites was his insistence that “it is impolite to greet anyone who is urinating or defecating . . . A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity those parts to which nature has attached modesty.” These concerns were coupled with admonitions not to be like “the rustics who have not been to court or lived among refined and honorable people, [and who] relieve themselves without shame or reserve in front of ladies….”

These quaint recommendations strike us as funny, but, again, they are directed toward the goal of “civilizing” human beings, making them suitable for a life among others. As Elias would have it, manners were born as humans living together became increasingly aware that their own behavior must take into account the feelings of others,  restraining oneself “out of consideration for the embarrassment of others.” Ortega y Gasset once said “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” which captures the same thought.

In and of themselves a lack of courtesy and poor manners are trifles. But as signs of something deeper they must give us pause. I simply point out that when I speak about “manners” and “courtesy” as signs of a civilized person, I do not refer to the superficial behavior, the pretense, the bowing and scraping, the obsequiousness that hides a rotting soul. These are mere formalities and they do not necessarily imply the recognition of one person by another. Rather, I speak about a deeper sense on the part of each person that others matter, a sense of the other that leads readily to true virtue, to the practice of what has been called “the Golden rule.” Being polite is just the beginning of doing the right thing by another who deserves respect and at times sympathy.

The fact that we are becoming increasingly uncivilized, that we care less about others or about living with others — except, perhaps, for those few who are in our narrow field of vision — is a sign of what I have called “inverted consciousness.” Let me explain. Consciousness, as Edmund Husserl reminds us, is always intentional — it has an object; gradually over the years our consciousness has turned upon itself and the subject itself has become the object. In plain words, “it’s now all about me.” The other has disappeared, for all practical purposes, and so one can behave boorishly on a tennis court, chant and cheer loudly when the opponent commits an error, and forget all about court etiquette, or, indeed, etiquette of any sort. This, of course, is a reaction to past behaviors which a Victorian age, wrapped in mere formalities, stressed to absurd lengths and which we have tossed on the rubbish heap along with the all-important sense of the other as worthy of respect. This in the name of “letting it all hang out.”  Next I suppose we can expect to see our neighbor urinating on the road or in his front yard. No, wait: I have already seen that! But I didn’t greet him while he was in the act. As Erasmus reminds us, it would have been impolite.

Dodging a Bullet

This past June we had sudden and frequent rains — nearly 20 inches in a single month, which was more rain than any of us could remember is such a short time. In one instance, we had five inches in just a few hours. That rain followed several others that had already dumped considerable amounts of water into the barely adequate sewer system. The town ordered a number of porta-potties to be placed in strategic places around town and asked folks not to flush their toilets unless absolutely necessary and not to shower until the emergency abated. We all held our breath (literally) and waited for the rains to stop. And stop they did. Since the end of June we have had barely over two inches of rain and things are starting to look like our ordinary Summers of late: dry and dusty. The grass is once again brown and crunches underfoot. The trees are dropping their leaves early out of sheer exhaustion. The dark clouds gather from time to time, promising rain, but then move on East, dropping the rain elsewhere — such as Minneapolis during a baseball game.

But in the midst of  the crisis last June, when townspeople were taking precautions to make sure the sewers didn’t back up into their houses (though I seriously wonder how many people actually used the porta-potties) there was apparently at least one family that wasn’t going to be inconvenienced. They lived in a newer home on the lake and had a cut-off installed when the house was built that made it impossible (?) for the sewer to back up into their house. The distaff member of that household has been bragging ever since to all and sundry that they weren’t in the least bit worried and went about their business, taking showers regularly and flushing at will. And this is a middle-aged couple, the husband a respected businessman in town. One wonders, what about their neighbors? Why didn’t these folks think about others?  Has this sort of thing finally arrived, even to a small Midwestern town?

I spoke with the city engineer and he said that if there had been one more downpour there would have been very serious consequences. The equipment they have in this little town is simply not up-to-date and sophisticated enough to handle a series of heavy downpours. We had dodged a rather smelly bullet, it would appear. And I am left pondering what Ortega y Gasset said about civilization, that it is “the will to live in common.” The determination of at least one family in this little Midwestern town to ignore the emergency precautions because they had the latest technology raises the question of whether they are, in Ortega’s sense of the word, “civilized.” Or do we have here another instance of the growing trend toward a new barbarism that seems to be taking hold of the country, a country in which its people are not citizens at all, but isolated individuals who have no sense of obligation toward their fellows. Indeed, they hardly seem aware of their existence. And when more and more emergency situations arise in the years to come — as promised by the scientific community resulting from the climate change that threatens more frequent violent weather events and reduced food for growing numbers of people — we might indeed soon be back in a state of nature.

Who’s The Bully Here?

The latest item in the stack of daily horror stories that we call “news” is about students harassing and even threatening bus drivers, teachers, and administrators. As a recent Yahoo story tells us, The most recent school safety report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the data branch of the U.S. Department of Education, found that 5 percent of public schools reported students verbally abused teachers on a daily or weekly basis. Also, 8 percent of secondary school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student, as did 7 percent of elementary teachers.

And we wonder why our education system is on the ropes! We refuse to pay teachers what they are worth and complain when they want to make enough to live on while at the same time we expect them to raise our children for us. It is clear even from this small sample (and we have no idea how many people refused to respond) that many of our children have no idea what the word “no” means. They suffer from an enlarged sense of “self” fostered by unlimited time in front of the TV and playing video games (which help isolate them and convince them that they are the center of the world) while their parents are off somewhere else trying to make enough money to pay the bills. The parents, accordingly, are being irresponsible by ignoring their children and refusing to teach them such elemental things as “manners.” What they are teaching their children are lessons in irresponsibility: do your own thing and the hell with others. It’s hard to determine which is the “cause” here since there are multiple factors involved.

For some time now as a culture we have rejected the notion of authority as a bad thing — even the authority of expert opinion. Now everyone has an opinion about everything and all are equal. As Ortega y Gasset pointed out some time ago, “Today the most average man has the most mathematical ‘ideas’ on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence, he has lost the use of his hearing. . . There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life in which he does not intervene, blind, and deaf as he is, imposing his ‘opinions.'” Ignoring the fact that some opinions are more reasonable than others is a part of our preoccupation with self.

We have also rejected notions such as discipline and discrimination, both of which are now regarded as bad things, taboo.  Both are, however, essential to a responsible, intelligible, well-ordered, world. Contrary to popular misconceptions, none of these things causes repressed egos. When properly guided they merely cause a redirection of energy into productive avenues of expression.  However, as long as we continue to read and hear on all sides that the self is the only thing that matters, reject even legitimate authority as bogus, and identify freedom with lack of restraint, simply, we must learn to expect our kids to pick up on the hints. They take their clues from what is going on around them; they are not stupid. Unschooled and self-absorbed like their parents, yes, but stupid, no.

I recall a good friend of mine who was the school superintendent at our local school. The gym was located in the school building near the classrooms; he went out to the gym one day not long ago because a student was shooting baskets and making a racket instead of attending classes; because of this he was disturbing those students who might have wanted to learn something. He told the boy to stop and go back to class. The boy turned to the man and told him to f$%# off — and he continued to dribble the basketball and shoot buckets! My friend didn’t know what to do: he wasn’t strong enough to physically manhandle the young man and the local police weren’t an option if he wanted to avoid a scandal (which he did). If he suspended or expelled the student he would have to deal with the parents who would invariably take the boy’s side (because he is their son and can do no wrong). But he decided to suspend the boy anyway. As expected, he was severely criticized by the boy’s parents and their friends (it’s a small town) and was eventually “let go.”

Anecdotal? Yes. But symptomatic of the larger problem: our kids are learning to be irresponsible because they are surrounded by irresponsible adults. Clearly the parents should have supported the superintendent here. We are in danger of reverting to barbarism where the strongest (and loudest) rule. But “might” does not make “right.” The kids must learn, and we all must recall, that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” to quote Ortega once again.  We need others in order to become fully ourselves: we cannot go it alone, no matter how brave or audacious we think we are. But the first step is to acknowledge and above all respect the legitimacy of others’ interests even when they conflict with our own. We seem to be losing that and it is in danger of tearing us apart.

Asperger’s Syndrome

“The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper has it. BBC’s Sherlock and Doc Martin have it as well. It’s all the rage these days. It’s called “Asperger’s Syndrome” and it is defined as follows:

a developmental disorder resembling autism that is characterized by impaired social interaction, by restricted and repetitive behaviors and activities, and by normal language and cognitive development —called also Asperger’s disorder.” Actually, “language and cognitive development” is often exceptional. But these people have to be taught how to interact with others, because they are not fully aware of the others’ presence — except insofar as the other person accommodates or interferes with the person’s own desires. They seem to be emotionally stunted, lacking any reaction to other people’s feelings and the subtle nuances of human behavior.
     I wrote about the phenomenon years ago before I had ever heard the word. I called it “inverted consciousness” and argued that it is a widespread cultural phenomenon resulting from a fixation on the part of the subject with his or her own experience, an inability to see beyond that experience. For this person “the” world is “my” world. Paintings and music are beautiful or ugly because the subject likes or dislikes them; behavior is right or wrong because it pleases the individual or fails to do so; all opinions are of equal merit — there is no such thing as truth or even expertise. I maintained that there are degrees of this disorder from the extremely inverted consciousness of what I now know is Aspergers down to the occasional or intermittent inversion. It is usually found in men, though I know of a woman or two who have it.  My sense of it is that women are more empathetic and compassionate than men as a rule and those qualities do not live comfortably alongside a condition that blinds the person to the fact that there are others in their world — except in so far as the others serve their own purposes. That sounds sexist, but I still think there are important differences between men and women and in this case women are being complimented: this condition is very unattractive. However, I apologize in advance to any readers who find this differentiation offensive!
     As I say, I do regard the condition as widespread in our culture and took my clue from Ortega y Gasset who noted the symptoms in Europe in the 30s and wrote about them in describing Mass Man in his classic The Revolt of the Masses. Defining “barbarism” as simply “the failure to take others into account,” Ortega was convinced that Europe was then on the brink of a new barbarism, an age in which people would become more and more removed from one another and “hermetically sealed” within themselves.  World War II soon followed.
     Describing this type of person, Ortega said at the time, “The innate hermetism of his soul is an obstacle to the necessary condition for the discovery of his insufficiency, namely: a comparison of himself with other beings. To compare himself would mean to go outside of himself for a moment and transfer himself to his neighbor.”  But he is incapable of that.
     I am not sure what causes this phenomenon, but it does appear to be more and more prevalent. I suppose our increasingly crowded living conditions together with the almost constant bombardment of images and sounds around us are causal factors. In addition, the countless number of technical devices that seem designed to discourage human interaction must also be considered. I was recently at a restaurant, for example, and noted the table next to me where three of the five people were texting while they waited to be served — presumably to people elsewhere. But note how all of these technical devices turn the individual’s attention inward (he said, sitting alone at his computer).
     In any event, I thought what Ortega had to say was a powerful message when I first read it, and I find it even more so today. If we are, indeed, “from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside [ourselves], be it fact or persons,” this is something we need to ponder seriously, since it suggests we are becoming increasingly isolated from one another — like Sheldon. And Sherlock. And Doc Martin — who are all funny up to a point, but also pathetic. And we may be more like them than we want to admit.

Civilization at Risk

Ortega y Gasset thought that civilization is above all else the “will to live in common.” I referred to this claim by Ortega in a previous blog and want to return to this notion in a second. But I also want to evoke the authority of Clarence King who was a close friend of both Henry Adams and John Leslie Powell and who insisted that there is a natural “pilgrimage” in the development of human societies — from savagery, through barbarism, to civilization, and finally vulgarization.

The notion that humans evolved from savages (a word that is no longer politically correct, even if it connotes a stage in human development) to civilized humans with religion, art, literature, written history, language, and science is most provocative. All of this, of course, takes place in the name of “progress.” But the claim to the superiority of the “civilized” has come under fire of late as we learn that savage and barbarian people have a culture that in many respects is superior to that of “civilized” people. Indeed, we are now being sold the fiction of the “noble savage,” a notion that has long been around but which has become ever more prominent as colonization has come under fire. I find the notion of the “noble savage” borderline absurd. But the notion that we should impose our way of life on others rests on the assumption that our way of life is paradigmatic, which it most assuredly is not. In saying this, however, I seriously doubt whether even the most zealous among us would want to trade our “civilized” way of life for a more primitive one. The notion that we have progressed does seem to hold water, though I sometimes wonder if the “pilgrimage” that King talks about isn’t circular: we end up pretty much where we started from.

There is something to say for civilization, for art, music, science, and above all else language. But it does seem that in our urge to “tame” the wilderness, bring railroads, highways, airports, towns, and commerce, we have also brought the vulgar, and the next step may indeed be a return to the level of the savage. King doesn’t deny the possibility: the steps we take may not be linear, they may be circular. We do appear to be regressing, not progressing. What we are doing to the wilderness is inexcusable. But what we are doing to ourselves is even more distressing. Without language, sophisticated language, not just grunts and gestures, we cannot think. And thought at this time is absolutely necessary for our survival as a species. The “will to live in common,” that Ortega speaks of is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as we lose self-restraint and the good manners that take others into account.  Our sense of trust in one another, not to mention our basic awareness of others, is in retreat. The cause of this regression, in my view, is the weakening of the pillars of a civilized society: the family, religion, civil law, and the schools. These four institutions are essential for civilization to stand firm against the tide of self-interest and greed which foster the regression that is apparent. And while we remain, for the most part, a law-abiding country, the other three pillars are weak at the foundation.

I don’t say that we should bottle Western civilization and sell it to other “savage” or “barbarous” peoples. On the contrary.  But we should not allow it to vanish altogether. We should be aware that we are on the verge of becoming if not savage then barbarous ourselves — if we haven’t become so already. Jacques Barzun thought it was happening in the 1960s and warned us to lock up our treasures. The Romans were invaded by barbarians who brought about the fall of their empire. We are breeding our own with the failure of three of the pillars that support this civilization. I can’t believe this is a good thing.