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”.


7 responses to “The Slow Suicide of the Modern Era”

  1. donsalmon says :

    I don’t know if you folks have heard of Charles Eisenstein (his online book, “The Ascent of Humanity” is available for free). He was a math major at Yale and had a ‘spiritual opening” and completely changed his life. He’s as shocked as everyone else that somehow he’s gained a passionate following of many thousands of people who feel he speaks to them as few do about the nature of the transition out of the modern/postmodern age that the world is going through.

    I mention him here because he is almost relentlessly positive, and optimistic, though – I think – without ignoring the horrors of what is happening now.

    Also, he moved to Asheville a few months ago and Jan and I are hoping to have time to hear him speak next week. Interesting in light of this post, he would probably speak of it as the rather fast suicide (or at least, the collective suicide that is picking up pace rapidly) but prefers to focus on what we can do to manage this change in a resilient fashion.

    It is quite heartening living in Asheville and seeing so many people in their 20s, 30s (and even teenagers and sometimes kids as young as 8 or 9) who “get” what’s happening and are actively working together to prepare for the profound transition that will hit us over the heads in the next decade or so.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Your mention of Eisenstein prompted me to look him up on the net, and I came across this youtube video of a talk he gave at TEDxWhitechapel. He does speak to some of these things I wrote in “The Slow Suicide of the Modern Era” (which is simultaneously a “miserable ease” as Nietzsche called it and yet also a “world of pain” as Eisenstein mentions — not necessarily contradictions). Here’s his talk, for those interested

      The dilemma of the present, though — its contradictory character despite the “New Story” remains: people say they want peace, but the elect violent men. People say they want change, but they keep recycling the old; people say they want unity, but they act to induce strife and discord. The dissonance between what they say they want, and what they actually do, is so stark that it must eventually meet like matter and anti-matter. And you know what happens when matter meets anti-matter.

      Eisenstein is optimistic that the “New Story” will win out over the “Old Story”, but to put that another way, that the “New Adam” will overcome the “Old Adam”, which puts things in a slightly different, but related, light. In fact, the struggle between the New Adam and the Old Adam is probably at the root of the Pope’s statement that “duplicity is the currency of the day”.

      • donsalmon says :

        well, we’re playing it out in an interesting way here in the US. There was a nice cartoon a while back – in the middle were Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton looking worn out, carrying the mantle of the Establishment, and their right was Donald Trump leading a large flock of followers, and on the left was Bernie Sanders with a host of fellow travelers.

        Trump was carrying a sign that read “Hate” and Sanders was carrying a sign that read “Love”.

        I know, sounds terribly corny, but this Jewish Democratic Socialist with the wild Brooklyn accent sounds more like the Pope every day – ABC news even came out with a piece a few weeks ago describing “10 ways that Bernie Sanders is like Pope Francis”

        Here’s a great song, with his inimitable accent:

        • Scott Preston says :

          Ha! That’s a good one! Actually, that song bears comparison with William Blake’s “New Jerusalem”, also set to music.

          But I can’t find a version that doesn’t suck, and that doesn’t completely bowdlerise Blake’s intentions for it. It was transformed into a hymn to British Nationalism, even exceptionalism, and that had nothing to do with what Blake was attempting to express about “New Jerusalem”.

          Given enough latitude, human beings seem to be able to pervert almost everything.

          • Scott Preston says :

            Given enough latitude, human beings seem to be able to pervert almost everything.

            Let me talk about that for a moment. Blake’s “New Jerusalem” is both a spiritual and a revolutionary statement about a spiritually awakened society living in a cooperative commonwealth. In the context of his times, it was a very potent (and to some, dangerous) call to arms.

            Instead, it got twisted into some conservative hymn to British national greatness — a celebration of the status quo, blunting Blake’s revolutionary intentions for it. The fire in it was put out completely. People mouthed the words, but they didn’t seem to identify with them or to understand their meaning.

    • Scott Preston says :

      By the way, Eisenstein’s mention of Kalle Lasn is an interesting case in point of “Old Adam” and “New Adam”. Kalle was originally an adman who had an “epiphany” and became an adbuster and culture jammer. But the “epiphany” happened before his “new story” and new identity could take shape — a transfiguration, as it were, in depth.

      He’s an interesting character:

  2. abdulmonem says :

    just wanted to say that Scott has mentioned Charles in a previous post and I still remember my comment on the gift economy, saying that god has built his world on the principle of gift in which we enjoy free water,free air,free fruits and free language., and free faculties to use, it actually free every thing but we are ungrateful and forget easily. I like to add here that we are only remembering our root. It is a natural cycles, go away and come back until the curtain comes down.

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