The Slow Suicide of the Modern Era
A French General, upon hearing the outbreak of war in 1914, is reported to have exclaimed in shock “Impossible! It is the suicide of Europe!”
Naysayers can say that the General was a bad prophet, since Europe still exists, even if it is a different kind of Europe. But that’s not what the General meant by “suicide of Europe”. He meant suicide of the Modern Era, and in that he was quite right. The whole period from 1914 to 1945 and thereafter till today represents the suicide of the Modern Era. And that’s pretty much what it means to live “the postmodern condition”.
“The sins of the fathers shall be visited down to the third and fourth generations” is not a metaphysical or moral scruple. It’s a sociological rule. It’s a theory of the Consequential, another aspect of the karmic law of action and reaction that is not blind or random, but unfolds according to its own logic, which is not necessarily human logic. In our present context, it means that the work of violently dismantling the Modern Era is handed down from generation to generation.
One should not discount the the role of bad conscience, of even a more or less unconscious self-loathing and self-contempt expressed as “world-weariness” in the indifference, apathy, and inaction today on the many existential threats that face humanity — climate change, nuclear weapons, “killer robots”, and so on. That self-loathing, even a thanatic and morbid will to nothingness as a turning away from life, is, as Nietzsche knew, also part of our “two centuries of nihilism”. To wit: the organism called “Man” wants to perish and go under.
“Man”, wrote Nietzsche, “is the sick animal”. And who has yet really fathomed the depth of that sickness?
This mood of nihilism extending even into self-contempt unto self-annihilation is not that uncommon. It’s even represented in a film, a much neglected cult classic that was actually quite profound, called Zardoz (a contraction of “Wizard of Oz”) in which many of Nietzsche’s psychological themes appear.
The work of dismantling a civilisation or era is not the work of one generation alone, and for that reason does not come suddenly. The delegitimisation of traditions and institutions is not the work of one generation. This is where Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” also serves as interpretive guide to understanding nihilism, and its four fronts of society as past and future, inner and outer. In Modern secular society, those four fronts (our own “Guardians of the Four Directions”) were represented by Church, State, University, and Corporation. Their delegitimisation or deconstruction is not the work of one generation, but each generation specialises in deconstructing one or another or emptying it of meaning and authority. This is called “breakdown” phase. The “collapse” phase comes when the last pillar of legitimacy falls.
The symptoms of breakdown leading to collapse are the four social diseases against which the four “guardians” are erected — decadence, anarchy, war, and revolution. Each attacks one or another of the four time and space fronts of the social order, and we call it an “order” because it conforms to this implicit quadrilateral pattern. Collapse occurs when that quadrilateral pattern falls apart and disintegrates. It’s easy enough to see that the dismantling of these institutions has been the work of different generations.
This thanatic impulse of nihilism — this world-weariness that extends even to self-negation — is perhaps even best expressed by an experience Einstein recounted, about how an unnamed colleague of his — one of the atomic scientists — even thought atomic warfare wouldn’t be such a bad thing because it would cleanse the Earth of its all-too-human pestilence. Unless this man’s mind was so abstracted and totally divorced from reality within the wonderland of the res cogitans, “humanity” also would have included him. No. He wasn’t just speaking for himself alone, but as an agent of that same human self-contempt and self-loathing that Nietzsche also saw in the psychology of cynicism and nihilism. And in moments of candour, I’ve come across that same world-weary thanatic and suicidal impulse in some of my acquaintances — a will to perish.
The “devaluation of values” that is nihilism extends even to the life-principle itself. Thinking is no longer identified with life. Indifference to life, or even contempt for life.
What on Earth is behind this? Stress leading into dis-stress. Pressure leading into depression. The “malaise of modernity” as Charles Taylor called it.
This morbid dynamic of self-loathing or devaluation, also recognised by Jean Gebser as the disintegrative dynamic, and which persuaded him of impending “global catastrophe” in the making, has also, as Nietzsche and Gebser also noted, a coincident “irruption” of a new consciousness structure, still in the background or latent, but becoming more manifest. This is the meaning of the “apocalyptic” — this inner “irruption”, and that one could not separate the attitude of self-loathing and self-contempt from the emergence of this new consciousness trying to be born. Nietzsche hoped to turn that nihilism — that self-loathing and self-contempt and sickness unto death — into a positive, a will to perish so that the transhuman could emerge.
In that sense, Nietzsche was just as much an apocalyptic thinker as anyone. His “two centuries of nihilism” corresponds to what Christians call “the dark night of the soul”.
Gebser and Nietzsche both discovered precedents for this morbidity and self-loathing in history, as the feature of civilisations in decay and decline, but also as “chaotic transitions”, one might call it, to a new consciousness and new human self-understanding. Nietzsche even saw in the late stages of civilisations an overwhelming weariness with life and a correspondingly accelerated suicidal will to perish (the meaning of Socrates, for example). But that will to perish, to no longer want to suffer life, was coincident also with the birth of a new spirit, and could not be separated from it.
So, there are precedents for the suicide of civilisations. But what is unprecedented is that, today, modern man has the means to carry out the thanatic impulse of a will to perish, the despair of life, to its logical conclusion.
This is what is called today “the danger of dangers”.
An anecdote from Carlos Castaneda’s writings seems appropriate here as an exemplar. At some point during his apprenticeship, Castaneda also was afflicted with morbidity and a will to perish, and it required don Juan’s intervention to pull him out of it. Don Juan called it “loss of soul” but it was coincident also with what he called “shedding the human form” or “human mold”. Castaneda’s morbidity was coincident with the emergence of a new consciousness and a new self-understanding. In Christian mystical terms, this is also called the death of the “Old Adam” and the birth of the New Adam. And that death of the Old Adam is equivalent to what Nietzsche called “the stare into the abyss”.
“When you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss also begins to stare back into you” is just another way of saying “postmodern condition”.