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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Commodified Culture

You have probably seen the commercial. A young woman walks into the kitchen of a very posh house and places two sets of keys down on the counter and smiles at her husband (presumably). They race out of the posh house and stand beside two brand new GMC trucks (costs, appx. $50,000.00 apiece). One truck is blue and the other is red. The man points to the blue one, but his wife has already claimed it for herself and he weakly smiles as he realizes that the red one is his.

I have borrowed the words of Robert Heilbronner to help us grasp what is wrong with this commercial, so typical of those we see on our television at this time of year. To begin with these are apparently Christmas presents that the woman has bought for herself and her husband. Thus begins the set of problems this commercial sets before us.

Christmas is not all about getting, though the commercials like this one would lead us to believe it is. Granted, if all are expected to get something at Christmas then someone must be giving, but the point is moot because the scenes we witness again and again are about the joy of receiving, not giving. So that’s the first problem. A season of giving has turned into a season of getting — and we mustn’t ignore the sad faces of the little children who may not get anything this Christmas. Heaven forbid.

The second problem is the fact that these expensive gifts are now the aspiration of a great many people in this country most of whom could not even dream of spending that sort of money to buy Christmas presents. So it breeds resentment, of which I have spoken before: the frustration and anger that arise because others have things we want for ourselves. But the fact that we want these things is a fact that rests on the virtual certainty that the marketing forces that rule the media have convinced us that those expensive toys will make us happy.

The third problem suggested above, is that the woman’s behavior in claiming the blue truck which her husband clearly wants shows us her selfish desire to gratify her own pleasures and to ignore his — again, getting takes precedence over giving. What started out to be a gift turns out to be a sort of booby prize because the man has the very thing he wants snatched away from him by the giver, in this case his wife.

But beyond these obvious layers of message, and there are many when we reflect on commercials, is the growing evidence that ours has become indeed a commodified culture that stands or falls on the willingness of consumers to buy things they do not need simply because they have been conditioned by the “hidden persuaders” that they want them.  Therefore they must have them. Need is forgotten. Wants trump and they are easily created by a media that has become very astute at sending messages, both conscious and unconscious, that help us decide what sorts of things will make us happy.

And here is the nub of the problem. It is bad enough that we have become a society of blind consumers, but it adds to the problem when we realize that Christmas time, starting these days immediately after Halloween, has become all about getting things. Getting and things: two concepts that are at the core of a commodified culture. Thus, a season that is supposed to be all about love and peace on earth, is now about getting the stuff we want, regardless of the cost. Period.

And Yet Again: Black Friday

It’s time for my annual “Black Friday” post, as per the past couple of years! If only those with ears could hear!!

I have posted this piece before, but in light of the fact that we now have a mega-holiday that a character in one of the comics I enjoy calls “Hallothanksmas,” and given also that advertisers are now calling November “Black Friday Month,” it seems especially appropriate since we are about to see the ugly face of commodified Christmas once again. The more things change the more they stay the same! I have added a few pithy comments to this version.

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither — but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that begins before Thanksgiving [Halloween?] is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation at a time when the theme should be “peace On Earth.” If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy, tighten the purse strings. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket; when you retire move somewhere where the taxes are lower. The real issues, like the spread of nuclear weapons (25,000 world-wide at last count) and the damage we are doing to the environment in our determination to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we presumably celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities. But we won’t.

Christmas Time

 

Hark the Herald Tribune sings

advertising wondrous things….

(Tom Lehrer)

It is that time again when we all wonder what those bright packages under the tree hold in store for us. Because, let’s face it, Christmas has become an orgy of gifts and greed, and it all starts at Halloween. The fiction that it is about giving and not about receiving is exposed in the TV advertisements showing the kids exploding with delight as they open the largest and most promising of packages or shrieking ecstatically as they discover the latest in electronic toys. Thus, it would appear, it is time to think about industrial capitalism and what it has meant to the growth, or diminution, of the human spirit.

To begin with, there’s no question that capitalism has improved the lot of the average human in capitalistic countries, if we measure in terms of “things” and allow that happiness is equated with standard of living. The average Westerner lives better than a medieval king. But if we take a deeper look, together with Robert Heilbroner, who wrote the book on capitalism (well, Karl Marx wrote THE book, but Heilbroner’s book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism is worthy of serious thought) we find this:

“. . .the accumulation of wealth fulfills two functions: the realization of prestige, with its freight of unconscious sexual and emotional needs, and the expression of power, with its own constellation of unconscious requirements and origins.”

More to the point, however, is this observation about the possible costs of judging all success and happiness by how many toys we can accumulate in our lifetime, a cost that involves replacing of moral values with commercial values:

“The de-moralization of economic activity removed any need to justify the logic of capitalism, provided that it did not directly violate the law or outrage the deepest moral convictions of society, but it made meaningless such questions as: Which of two equally profitable undertakings is the better? Can one call wasteful any undertaking that returns a satisfactory profit? Is it possible to condemn on moral grounds legal and profitable actions, such as the decision to relocate a plant at the cost of community disruption? . . .

[Capitalist ideology] succeeds in offering definitions of right and wrong that exonerate the activities and results of market activity. This is accomplished in part because the motives of acquisitiveness are reclassified as interests and not passions; in part because the benefits of material gain are judged to outweigh any deterioration in the moral quality of society; and last and most important because the term ‘goodness’ is equated to private happiness, absolving all licit activity from any need to justify itself on moral grounds.”

Note the displacement here of moral virtues with what we might call “practical” values. Ethics is displaced by civil law, for one thing; “goodness” is equivalent to private happiness. If an action breaks no laws, makes someone happy, and results in profit, there is no need of further inquiry. The end of profit does, in fact, justify any means to that end. This is the new ethic which has displaced the old ethic that demanded justification and moral grounding for any action involving other persons, especially possible harm to others. An anecdote might help illustrate this point.

I was in charge of bringing speakers to campus at the university where I taught as a part of a lecture series that dealt with ethics in business. We invited the “ethics officer” at a large and successful company in Minneapolis to address the issue; she turned out to be a lawyer whose job was to see to it that her company did nothing that might end them up in court. “Ethical” became equivalent to “legal.” But, as Heilbroner suggests, they are not the same.

Again, some years ago I recall teaching a graduate course in Business Ethics and reading a book by a sociologist who examined in great detail the behavior of a number of employees who worked for several large corporations on the East Coast. What he found in common was the tendency to separate their actions on the job from their actions off the job. In the former case they could “live with anything” required of them to do their jobs — even to the point of burying toxic waste. In the latter case they insisted that they needed to look themselves in the mirror every morning and treat their families and friends with respect. In a word, they lived two lives. One life was centered around a loose grasp of traditional ethical and Christian values, the other centered around expediency, what was necessary to keep their job and please their bosses. Now, given that the workaday world has become the center of a great many lives in our nation, there would appear to be less and less concern about what one sees in the looking-glass while shaving or brushing one’s teeth, sad to say.

This has a direct bearing with today’s topic, of course, because it suggests that, in fact, we have become a society that has, as Heilbroner suggests, replaced traditional ethical concepts with commercial values and avoids altogether asking tough questions about our everyday activities if they might border on the unethical. Material gain has indeed placed itself at the center of so many of our lives as the most important thing. When we no longer seek the moral high ground because we seek instead the promotion, the new car, or are busily reaching for the package under the tree with our name on it, it is a sure sign that the human spirit has shrunk; as a nation we are at risk of losing our collective soul. Thomas Jefferson worried about this in 1788:

“What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.”

Christmas is merely the reductio ad absurdum of the displacement of ethical values, replacing the true meaning of a Holy Day with out-and-out greed. Peace On Earth and love of our fellow humans have been replaced by pleasure and self-indulgence. Right and wrong have been replaced by what feels good.

 Christmas time is here by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cups and don’t say when……

(Tom Lehrer)