A Withering From Within
In the former Dark Age Blog, I called our own present-day Four Riders of the Apocalypse by the names Double-Talk, Double-Think, Double-Standard, Double-Bind. They are just the various names for Nihilism. If former Maclean’s Magazine columnist Andrew Coyne thought we had come to embrace a “culture of lying”, or Arthur Herzog much earlier identifed “faking it” and The B.S. Factor (1973) as the dominant mode of contemporary public discourse, it is similary in recognition of the duplicity that undermines society presently and which has become so habitual and chronic that it is rarely even acknowledged as being an aberrant and near pathological condition. It is even considered impolite today to point that out.
(And wherever I use the term “society” I almost invariably mean the same as “commonwealth” — that is, what is “shared” in common, as is the derived meaning of the terms communicate, community, common).
In the Dark Age Blog and in the present Chrysalis, we have been dealing with our experience of Mr. Fukuyama’s “end of history” not as the triumph of modernity, but as the Modern Era’s impending collapse and dissolution through ironic reversal — its fragmentation and atomisation. In Jean Gebser’s terms, this would be the breakdown of dialectical, perspectivising rationality and thus of “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” (or, Universal Reason) presently in crisis but which typified the character of this civilisation. We have called this mode of perception and structure of consciousness “line-of-thought-and-point-of-view” perspectivity also.
Although frequently thought to be grounded in Rene Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum or Francis Bacon’s scientia potens est, its roots actually lie in the Renaissance discovery of perspective space — depth as the third dimension — which shifted the parameters of perception, displacing the earlier centrality of the soul to this new thing, the res cogitans or “thinking thing” — the ratiocinating or mentating ego.
Although a necessary development given the need to coordinate the new historical environment of three dimensional space, it came to impute existential primacy to the cogito itself and its “point of view” — as the rational pursuit of self-interest become the hyperbolic egocentric individualism, acquisitive individualism, and “the culture of narcissism” of today. In consequence, the basis of society, considered as a commonwealth, has been undermined. This present collapse takes the form of a spiritual drought and famine called “nihilism”, which belongs equally to Nietzsche’s pronouncement of “the death of God”.
In The Narcissism Epidemic, Twenge and Campbell acknowledge, however tangentially, that narcissism in the individual — and narcissistic delusion and self-aggrandisement — is a survivalist response and adaptation to the cultural milieu and reflects it. At the same time, ego-centric individualism is a propellant and accelerant of the inherent nihilism (atomisation) of the present culture because it is merely adaptive and conformist. By way of illustration, they cite the lyrics of a pop song by a group called Felix da Housecat entitled “Money, Fame, Success, Glamour” that exemplifies the situation,
We are living…in the age,
in which the pursuit of all values
money, success, fame, glamour
have either been discredited or destroyed.
money, success, fame, glamour,
for we are living in the age of the thing.
money, success, fame, glamour…
The age of the thing and the age of bling. The lyrics (which may be intentionally sardonic) pretty much capture the close dialectical relationship between narcissism in the individual and the implicit nihilism of the surrounding culture.The delusion of the narcissist as being unique and “self-made” lies in the fact that he or she is only an artifact of the times, shaped to comply with its requirements and seduced by its imperatives.
To live in nihilistic ages can be a disturbing experience. It can indeed feel like “the end of the world”. In one sense it is. At the same time, we can take heart from the insights of Jean Gebser that the manifestations of narcissism and nihilism in our time are also “an essential restructuration” and the necessary prelude or overture to an incipient transformation of consciousness such as has previously occurred but rarely in human history. In Gebser’s terms, we are presently in transition from the mental-rational structure of consciousness to “the integral” structure, or from the Modern Era to the Planetary Era.
Indeed, there is much evidence to support Gebser’s diagnosis of our present socio-cultural predicament, in which case both the narcissistic response of egocentric individualism or the reactionary response of our latter-day conservatives to the deficiencies of Late Modernity (or post-modernity) are themselves deficient and inadequate, being equally narcissistic and nihilistic despite themselves.
As is said — not without reason — “the road to hell is paved with good intentions;” or what are at least perceived as good intentions. Perception is easily seduced into distortion. In historical conditions of ironic reversal, it is even the rule, where it is otherwise called “perverse outcome”, “revenge effect”, “reversal of fortune”, “blowback”, or “unintended consequence”, indicative of a mentality no longer in command of its circumstances or destiny.
The obverse of the coin is equally true, however — as Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Dante, and Goethe’s Mephistopheles in Faust noted — that the road to heaven is also very often paved with some very wicked intentions or follows from crooked ways. Altogether, this is the Karmic Law of Action and Reaction, and is recognised equally in terms like enantiodromia (Jung, after Heraclitus) or coincidentia oppositorum (Nicholas of Cusa, the alchemists). The Karmic Law is all about time and the nature of temporicity. When ostensible opposites like action and reaction become coincidental you have time contraction, if not time suspension. The breakdown of the dialectic and of the mental-rational structure of consciousness which it describes is very much owing to this situation. If “line-of-thought-and-point-of-view” perception describes the framework consciousness of the Modern Era — its self-understanding and equally the timespace structure called Newton’s “Frame of the World” — this comes into conflict with the reality of time as constituting a fourth “dimension”, with all that this implies for the restructuration of our perception, consciousness and self-understanding. As another line from a popular song puts it, “everything, all the time” eventually overwhelms “line-of-thought-and-point-of-view”.
Narcissism is a retreat into a mental cave far more than being merely a case of self-absorption. It’s a form of reification and fixation, not necessarily anything to do with exaggerated self-admiration. Self-pity — or even collective self-pity or resentment — is also narcissistic. Nietzsche called this “nook-and-corner” perspectivity. William Blake, even earlier raging against “Single Vision & Newton’s sleep,” already saw the essential latent insufficiency and deficiency in the premisses and assumptions of the European Enlightenment. “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). This line immediately follows what Blake saw as the corrective to the narcissistic situation of the human condition: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infinite”.
And also paradoxical: “Heaven in a Wild Flower” and “eternity in the hour”.
The narcissistic journey is also the journey of the Prodigal Son. I would even venture to say that everything called “religion” can be easily explained in terms of the parable of the Prodigal Son but is very often not understood in its authentic meaning as the passage through the condition of human narcissism into self-realisation. The high noontide for the Prodigal Son was that he “came to remembrance of himself” at the lowest point of his existence. The most brilliant contemporary example of the significance of the parable is to found in the Introduction to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now… even down to his personal experience of “withering within”. Eventually, depleting all one’s energies on sustaining the ego-image becomes exhausting and fatiguing.
This is also what is so refreshing about Almaas’s book The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization. In The Narcissism Epidemic, Twenge and Campbell do, however peripherally, acknowedge that there is something in the transpersonal psychology of self-actualisation (they mention A. Maslow) that somehow represents a contrary dynamic to the descent into narcissism, but they never explore this much further. Almaas understands that narcissism is even a necessary precondition for self-realisation, in keeping with the princple I’ve come to call “Khayyam’s Caution” that “only a hair separates the false from the true”.
In Tarot, the Prodigal Son is represented by The Fool. It may not be without meaning that the German word for fool is Narr, and resembles Narcissus. It’s the journey to awakening that we all must take.