The Pendulum of History
In the old Dark Age Blog, I was once asked by a commenter what could be done to stop the wild and erratic pendulum of history from swinging to-and-fro. What, he asked, could be done to prevent history from apparently constantly repeating itself? The great Irish writer James Joyce had also asked the same question: “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The metronome of politics and society seemed to be swinging from one extreme to another, from left to right and back again, or from an emphasis on public goods to private values and then back again in a seeming tedious eternal recurrence of same, of vengeance and revengeance that characterised the pagan world conception.
Then, I had no answer. Now I think I do. There is a reason why, as the old song puts it, “England swings like a pendulum do”.
The philosopher George Santayana once famously remarked that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. History as Pendulum, in other words. For Santayana, the pendulum swung between past and future, conservative or progressive, reversion or conversion, Labour or Capital, or reactionary and revolutionary orientations in time — even if he didn’t quite put it that way.
Unfortunately, Mr. Santayana was probably a better historian than he was a psychologist. History repeats itself pendulum-fashion because the human mind is trapped in that psychic tautology called “narcissism”. It’s not so much a problem of remembering the past, but, as Nietzsche and the story of the Prodigal Son put it, of remembering who and what we are really.
I was listening to a song by the old Canadian band named “Spirit of the West” this evening. The song was entitled “Two-Headed”, and the lyrics to the song brought to mind not only the question that was put to me a few years ago in TDAB about the pendulum of time and history, but the mystery of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella about the tormented and disintegrate character of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that the song seemed to reflect. In Stevenson’s novella, of course, the pendulum swings not just between two radically opposed aspects of the personality, but is, in effect, a psychic dualism of past and future states. Mr. Hyde is the primitive or Simian aspect of Dr. Jekyll, while Dr. Jekyll represents the “evolved” or future persona of the Simian Mr. Hyde. In Jungian terms, this would be the dualism of light and shadow, for the title “Dr.” represents the idealised enlightened Self of Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum, while Mr. Hyde (whose name is probably a play on the animal “hide”) represents the troglodyte roots become anti-thesis of the urbane, sophisticated, civilised, and refined personality that Dr. Jekyll is so anxious to project.
What is so interesting about Stevenson’s 1886 novella is that he was writing at the same time as Nietzsche was writing about the strange dissonance of the human soul in Thus Spoke Zarathustra,
“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.”
This disintegrate dualism of the personality of Late Modern man reflected in Stevenson and Nietzsche reflects what both saw as being a lack of equanimity in the psychic household, and a lack of equanimity manifests objectively as a lack of equilibrium or an unbalanced condition in society and history. Nietzsche represented this as a reconciliation between the gods Dionysos and Apollo, which is clearly the same Hyde and Jekyll relationship that Stevenson explores. This dualism in the personality that Gebser called “the inner division of modern man” becoming self-destructive between, for example, materialist or idealist, or conservative or progressive, or public and private, is the root of the pendulum motion between the extremities. Lack of equanimity in the soul (which equanimity is called “the peace that surpasseth understanding” in mystical literature) is the root of the unbalanced attitude in life and of the present polarisation and disequilibrium in society — the “pendulum” — presently called “culture war”.
In that sense, Socrates was perhaps more correct than Santayana. “Know thyself” was the more essential act and victory before the doom and nightmare of repetitive history could be transcended and Nietzsche’s “overcoming” of the all-too-human could be accomplished. This equanimity, also taught by The Buddha as “the Middle Way”, is what cultural historian Jean Gebser equally means by “integral consciousness”. Integral consciousness is essentially non-dualistic, but it is not for that reason either monocratic, monological, monopolistic, monochromatic, or monocultural as Fukuyama’s “end of history” proposed and as our contemporary reactionaries strive to effect as against “multiculturalism”.
If you are at all following the trial of the Norwegian right-wing extremist and terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, this bifurcation of the soul and the controversial question of his sanity or lack of sanity is most illuminating about our present confusion concerning what Gebser called the “inner division” of the soul of late modern man. Breivik is only the most extreme example of this bifurcation or dissociation, as this very interesting article by Simon Baron-Cohen attempts to draw out when he makes a distinction between cognitive insanity and affective insanity, for that is, in summary, another version of the struggle to understand the relation between “Dr. Jekyll” and “Mr. Hyde” and the contemporary dissocation of mind and soul that produces a monstrosity like Breivik in the first place. This dissociation of the cognitive and the affective was the primary theme of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde saga, which is mental and psychic dualism — the breakdown of dialectical/dialogical consciousness.
I’ll have more to post about this shortly, because Mr. Breivik is, unfortunately, only an extreme example of an attitude that has become the mainstream “common sense”. That may seem a shocking statement, but it is, alas, true.