A Delirium of Nihilism
Delirium: (n) A sporadic or temporary mental disturbance associated with fever, intoxication, shock, or injury and marked by restlessness, excitement, hallucinations, and general incoherence (< de — down, away + lira — furrow, track)
Reading Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity (which I recommend, and which is available for download online as mentioned in a comment in the last post) brought to mind an exchange of emails I once had with a professor at Harvard. He had written an interesting piece for a journal that specialised in the history and philosophy of science and technology — an area I’m particularly interested in — and in it he addressed the dichotomisation of reality and of the modern mind. I emailed him seeking clarification of some of his points.
So, we had a brief exchange in which the human prospect and outlook, given this dichotomisation of mind and being, was the principal theme. My interest in his views was sparked by noticing similarities between his observations and what Jean Gebser called the current condition of “deficiency” of the mental-rational structure of consciousness. My interest is, of course, in tracking the rise and fall of this particular structure of consciousness and mode of perception that defines the meaning of “Modern” — the mode in “modernity”, as it were.
His reason told him, after scrutinising the current trends in contemporary thought, that the dichotomisation of mind and being that lay implicit in the outlook of the mental-rational consciousness structure (that is to say, its “dualism”) could not but have finally a tragic and devastating outcome.
His faith, however, refused to surrender to his reason. He was a Christian, and he declined to accept the necessary outcome of his own logic as definitive and conclusive, even if it was compelling that the outcome of this dichotomisation, given its head, must be bleak. That is to say, suggestively, that it would follow the pattern laid out by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — ending in a delirium of nihilism and self-negation.
That same dichotomisation of being and consciousness had been identified by others — R.D. Laing in The Divided Self and the problem of the double-bind, Erich Kahler in The Tower and the Abyss and his theme of the “breakdown of the human form”, Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin (a brief summary of which is available as “Fundamental Considerations” online), and in Rosenstock-Huessy (particularly in his essay “Farewell to Descartes“, also available online), while in Bauman’s Liquid Modernity it appears in various guises, but most especially in the form of the contradiction of “the individual de jure” and “the individual de facto“. Bauman’s “liquid modernity” is also self-liquidation, and Bauman is concerned with the issue of salvage (equally, David Ehrenfeld’s mood in “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology“)
That prospect of impending breakdown hadn’t been included in my Harvard correspondent’s paper, which is why I pressed him for further details about the implications of his observations. I was quite surprised, then, when he took refuge in a cheery faith, because his reason saw no exit from the destructive dilemma that dichotomising rationality had created for itself. He had to have faith that we would survive — ie, outrun and outlive — the problem.
A delirium of nihilism (or a Dionysian frenzy of “two centuries of nihilism” in the Nietzschean manner, or the current enthusiasm for free-market “creative destruction” and for bubbles and “irrational exuberance“) is to be anticipated as the fateful outcome of breakdown of the mental-rational consciousness by the authors mentioned. In any event Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin and Rosenstock-Huessy in The Christian Future; or the modern mind outrun have focussed their efforts on what is needed to survive it, the former in the need of a “new consciousness structure” and the latter in terms of a “metanoia” or a new holistic logic. That is to say, the cure and corrective for the wound a dichotomising mentality has inflicted on being (and itself) is an integrating consciousness, along with a philosophy of reconciliation with a peace-making logic. All of which is, likewise, the thrust of William Blake’s art and poetry, too, as well as Seth’s acknowledgement of the essential problem at our “end of history” — an ego-consciousness become dissociated from its roots.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand” or “no man can serve two masters” — these phrases seem to attest to a struggle of long-standing against the tendency towards dualism and of the mind to dichotomise reality and itself.
The “shield of faith” — the confidence in our own survivability or to transcend ourselves, in other words — as fall-back position when our reason fails us or leads us into despair is a pronounced hallmark of the authors mentioned above. While for many what is called “faith” may be an escape from reality, Rosenstock-Huessy gave it it’s most cogent definition as simply the power of survivability, the power that lifts us up beyond ourselves and makes it possible to outrun and survive the fateful, the “necessary conclusion”, or the inevitable. And as William James once attempted to reveal, faith and freedom are related. We do not have to remain prisoners of our own logical deductions and necessary conclusions. One can say, “It is so. Nonetheless…”
As this faith is connected with “the truth that sets free”, it is also necessarily connected with intent. Intent is something akin to the will, but not identical. The dissociation of will and intent are part of that dichotomisation of consciousness and reality that is our present problem — dissociation. Intent runs deeper than our “I will”. Intent is the formative, will the activating. “Intent” is what William Blake calls “Imagination”, and which is, as he says, “the true man”. It is because our will and our intent don’t harmonise that we have those problems of “ironic reversal” that I have highlighted in past posts — “unintended consequence”, “perverse outcome”, “blowback”, “revenge effect”, “reversal of fortune”, “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men”, or generally what is called “karmic law” of action and reaction. In philosophical terms, what is called “the Consequential” or “the Accident”.
The harmonisation of will and intent is the meaning of “not my will but thine be done”. There are many indications that the dichotomisation of will and intent is the root of our present difficulties and dangers, and that this corresponds to Seth’s warning about an ego consciousness become detached from its roots. When people speak of the quest for the “purpose” or “task” of their lives (or even the domiant “myth” of their lives), what they are referring to is this inner intent. That is, basically, the issue behind Nietzsche’s distinction between Self (intentional) and Ego (willful) in the passage “The Despisers of the Body” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
It’s quite true, as the song puts it, that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. Those who follow Jean Gebser’s work will recognise in this the Gebserian “Sprung” or “leap” that outruns the limits of a mind that has “reached the end of its tether”, as they say (and as H.G. Wells lamented pessimistically as being the fate of the Modern Era and modern man, too).
The post-modern “loss of self” (and which is part of this delirium of nihilism) that is implied in the Gebserian “Sprung” has its opportunities, as well as its dangers.