The Tyrant and The Commonplace Mind
There are some parts of Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry that are exceptionally good. I particularly like his description of what he calls “the commonplace mind”, which he contrasts with “Genius” or the visionary “imagination” as William Blake understood these terms. “The commonplace mind” brought back to memory an old essay by Jacques Ellul that I once read as an undergraduate. It was an excerpt from a book by the same title called A Critique of the New Commonplaces.
I wasn’t particularly enamoured of Ellul’s essay at the time, but in retrospect I can see that it has a degree of merit, insofar as it was a somewhat fumbling attempt (in my view) to describe what has been better described by other authors such as Rene Guenon in The Reign of Quantity or Gabriel Marcel in Man Against Mass Society or even as “deficient rationality” in Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin. Curtis White called it The Middle Mind. In Frye, “the commonplace mind” is, essentially, a mind constructed from, well, commonplaces — a pastiche of fragmentary platitudes, talking points, cliches, bon mots, formulaic expressions that stand ready-made at hand for every occasion and which pretty much make up the whole woof and weft of the commonplace mind.
We all have the commonplace mind, to some extent. It is the image of society in our psyche. Blake generally refers to it as “the Selfhood”, but this appears in Castaneda as “the foreign installation” — the mind as occupied territory. In Blake, it is also the image of the tyrant, and for much the same reason. The “foreign installation” and “the commonplace mind” are pretty much synonymous.
If there is such a thing as “ordinary reality”, it is pretty much the fabrication or construction of the commonplace mind, for it is the thing that tyrannises over perception and which perverts the free exercise of the creative imagination. In Castaneda, as in Blake, it is what hinders or inhibits the unfolding of “the wings of perception” (don Juan) or “the Doors of Perception” (Blake). The commonplace mind is what is constructed through instruction in order to keep the mind, well… common, all-too-common.
So, it’s an interesting beast to study, and it is one of the first tasks of the practitioner of Buddhism to do so — the analysis of the Selfhood, or the commonplace mind, until it is analysed away. By others the commonplace mind has been called “the false self”, or just plain old “ego”. In effect, it is the narcissistic mind.
Some readers may recall the earlier discussion of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s formula for a modern education. Writing of the education of the student he insisted that “If you want to influence him at all, you must do more than merely talk to him ; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will.” All good-meaning and well-intentioned, I’m sure, except that Fichte, a father of German idealism and nationalism, paved the way for Hitler and Nazism.
That is the formula for the construction of “the foreign installation” or “the commonplace mind”. Blake, of course, considered such interference with the soul and inhibition of its own inherent purposes and tasks, propensities and predilections, to be the greatest of evils. Fichte’s formula only makes sense, of course, if you assume that the little animal you have before you to be educated has no “soul” as such and therefore no inherent, inborn purposes, propensities, or tasks of its own to fulfill. As a tabula rasa, the little animal is an empty vessel waiting to be filled with society, and with society’s purposes and tasks, duties and observances which then become the “identity”. This is also Nietzsche’s “herd mind”, but which the commonplace mind mistakes as its own unique “individuality”. In this way, education is transformed into just another technology of social control, and which is very often the ruin of the individual contrary to the stated purpose.
Today, this programme is simply called by the broad term “perception management”, but it is pretty much a direct descendent of Fichte’s pedagogy.
In effect, then, the “Tyrant” has actually been set up in our own minds and has his seat of power there, from which he wields his decrees — thou shalt not..! It is against this tyrant — the foreign installation — that Blake carries on his “Mental Fight” and “Intellectual Warfare”.
The reality of the commonplace mind as foreign installation was brought home to me a while ago by a remarkable article by Henry Enten that appeared in The Guardian that examined “symbolic belief”, in this case, why so many people insisted on believing that Obama was Muslim despite knowing otherwise, a case of ideology overruling consciousness. Quoting Julian Sanchez,
“Propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe, you believe; even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better.”
Quite a remarkable case of what is called “cognitive dissonance” as reflecting that inner self-division of Late Modern man that Gebser felt to be so disturbing, which state is likely to continue to have terrible consequences, as recent modern history has demonstrated.