In the opening chapter of his great work The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser described what he perceived as the fundamental dynamic of late Modernity towards greater disintegration. It does, in some ways, resemble what Zygmunt Bauman also described in Liquid Modernity. It’s worth reviewing the relevant passage once again as a pertinent diagnosis of our malaise — of what ails us and of our sense of “lack” as described also by the Buddhist sociologist David Loy. Here are Gebser’s remarks once again,
The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man’s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything. This deficient, that is destructive, antithesis divides the world into two warring camps, not just politically and ideologically, but in all areas of human endeavor.
Since these two ideologies are now pressing toward their limits we can assume that neither can prevail in the long run. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections have already been broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient” — Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, 1949, p. 3.
This perception of the same dynamic of disintegration — or loss of integrity — is the common theme of many of the authors I’ve reviewed in The Chrysalis or the earlier Dark Age Blog: W.B. Yeats haunting poem “The Second Coming” or Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl“; Erich Kahler in The Tower and the Abyss where he writes of “the breakdown of the human form”; Jane Jacobs in Dark Age Ahead; Pitrim Sorokin in The Crisis of Our Age; Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism; Rosenstock-Huessy when he writes of “modern man’s disintegration“, Rene Guenon in The Reign of Quantity; Nietzsche and his anticipation of “two centuries of nihilism”; Bauman’s liquifaction of Late Modern institutions and values, and so on. There are many others that could be mentioned. They all have described what is now blithely called “the new normal”, but which others call “nihilism”.
This “new normal” is a pathological condition — a very dangerous, disintegrate condition which I’ve described as being characterised by the “normalisation” of double-talk, double-think, double-standard, and double-bind. Some have referred to this as a “crisis of consciousness” now in the throes of fragmentation and dissolution, or as a “spiritual crisis of Modern Man” following the “death of God”. And there is certainly a great measure of truth to all that.
“Isolation and aggregation” (or “individualism” and “collectivism”) do, in fact, attest to the loss of a sense for the “spiritual” (we will call it that even though I somewhat dislike that term). The corrective to the culture of narcissism is empathy; the corrective to the condition of isolation is friendship; and the corrective to aggregation is fellowship. But the present structure of economic (power- and greed-driven) society not only places no value on the powers of empathy, friendship, and fellowship, it even works to effectively negate them. “All higher values devalue themselves” is Nietzsche’s succinct formula for nihilism, and the proof of that lies in what has happened to empathy, friendship, and fellowship as values.
In some ways, isolation and aggregation are symptoms of a singular fact: the powers of empathy are being bred out of the species. That is the implication of the article to which I referred earlier on early childhood development (“How big-hearted babies turn into selfish monsters”). Empathy is inborn and innate. The “oceanic feeling” that Freud mistakenly identified as “infantile narcissism” is actually the contrary of narcissism. It is actually the basis for full self-realisation, and without it the values of true friendship and fellowship cannot be realised either. It is this quality of innate empathy that is appealed to in the saying “unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven”. It’s the gist of Rumi’s poem,
The mother and father are your attachment
to beliefs and bloodties
and desires and comforting habits.
Don’t listen to them!
They seem to protect,
but they imprison.
They are your worst enemies.
They make you afraid
of living in emptiness.
Some day you’ll weep tears of delight in the court,
remembering your mistaken parents!
Know that your body nurtures the spirit,
helps it grow, and then gives it wrong advice.
So, in effect, self-realisation is less about doing or learning something than about un-doing and un-learning it.
As mentioned, without empathy, real friendship and fellowship — let alone any real marriage — are impossible to achieve or sustain. The human being of the modern type has “buddies” and “pals” and “partners”, but no real friends. His or her marriage is a “partnership” rather than a marriage, as if it were something akin to a business arrangement. Corporations, unions, political parties, churches, colleges and faculties today are not real fellowships, but human aggregates. They are not “fellowships” in any real sense, as were the earlier forms of church, sangha, or ummah. The modern marriage, like the modern corporation, union, political party, church, university, etc, never forms a true “we”. It is a mere aggregate of self-interests, a formal arrangement of interests rather than values. People today are starved for real friendship and fellowship or, as the old saying goes, they ask for bread and are given a rock.
This loss of fellowship and how to restore or recreate it in Late Modernity is what obsessed Rosenstock-Huessy. It’s pretty much the gist of his short book The Multiformity of Man.
Friendship against isolation, fellowship against aggregation. These attest to a spiritual aspect of the fourfold human that is being starved and suffocated. Empathy, friendship, and fellowship are exactly those spiritual values that are completely absent in most novels about our dystopian future, in which their recovery is also necessarily a rebellion.