Age of Distress

The End of the World (once again) came and went yesterday, and nobody noticed. At least, I’m still here. Most of the Earth and its peoples are still here. Of course, many also are not here, and so for many, yesterday was truly “the end of the world”.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t mock too much. Millennial crazes are common in troubled and distressed times, and there usually is a kernel of truth in them despite their apparent failure in fortune-telling. “Anything possible to be believed is an image of truth” Blake recorded as one of his “Proverbs of Hell”. That’s just another way of expressing what I call Khayyam’s Caution: “only a hair separates the false from the true”.

The end of the Age of Faith was marked by such millennial crazes, and, of course, most know of the Aztec prophecy of their own Doomsday, and which did in fact come for them. The strange lassitude, fatalism, and resignation that seemed to greet their invasion by the conquistadores (chronicled by Bernal Dias in his Memoirs of the Conquest) probably contributed as much to their own downfall as did the failure of their magic to turn aside Cortes. That’s called “the nocebo effect”, which is the other aspect of the placebo effect.

It is, in any event, recognised now as a principle in psychological warfare, or what is also called “perception management”, which is really, at root, the return of the magical.

Unfortunately for the Aztecs, the efficacy of their magic failed against the Spaniards because the Spaniards did not live in the Life-World of the magical consciousness and its horizons. As Gebser suggested in his Ever-Present Origin, it was the more individuated consciousness of the Europeans (the mental-rational) that shielded the conquistadores from the Aztec magicians.

Eschatological movements (that is “end times” movements) tend to abound in times of crisis and social stress, (and in some sense you can say that The Chrysalis is also a kind of eschatology. But then, so is thanatology also, since both are concerned with “the study of last things”). Christian eschatological movements are rooted in valid intuitions or impressions about something that gets very badly expressed.

We should, perhaps, cease to speak of “crisis” in referring to the disturbances and turbulence of our times, even though it is valid and meaningful to speak of “crisis”. The problem is that it has been flogged to death, and probably now only useful for an “in-group” that understands its authentic meaning. The problem now is that anyone who speaks the word “crisis” is dismissed as being an “alarmist” or a Cassandra. And the problem of Cassandra was not that her prophecies were wrong, but that she was cursed by Apollo never to be believed. (Greek myths are full of a sense of tragedy and the pain of frustrated purpose — Sisyphus, Tantallus, Cassandra, Narcissus, Midas and Silenus, etc).

But say that we are in an “Age of Distress” — of multiple fractures and stresses — and everybody can probably concur (even though it has the same meaning as “crisis”). Ours is an age and an era in distress, and that would seem hardly controversial. There are no romantic idylls, no Elysian Fields, no Arcadias that have not been afflicted with this distress. It’s a world in pain, even if the pain of ennui, of over-satiation, or over-stimulation.

The fate of the Aztec Empire is instructive, I think. The Aztec Empire was aberrant. Who knows how much a subliminal will to perish, a will to go under, informed their own Doomsday scenario, and played a part in their total defeat by the Spaniards?

Rosenstock-Huessy and Jean Gebser (amongst many others) held that the mood and symptoms of such distress and pain indicated that the Modern Age was ripe for a fall — over-ripe, in fact — but that a large factor in that distress and of Late Modern Angst, or anxiety (and anger) was the emergence of a new consciousness structure also; one that would “outrun” (Rosenstock-Huessy) or emerge victorious over the old consciousness structure.

The mental-rational, too, is now “mind at the end of its tether“, as H.G. Wells put it.

Everyone can, I think, grasp the meaning of stress and distress, even if they can’t relate to “crisis”. The symptoms of psychical, social and global distress — even in terms of Amy Chua’s World on Fire — are many and obvious. But to think they will be solved by economic growth, consumerism, or by technology, or that the malaise of modernity can be answered by more entertainments or an expansion of leisure, is all hallucinatory thinking.

This malaise runs deep, and even deeper than the overt and express conscious attitude might attest. The sense of the meaninglessness of it all, the pointlessness of existence, is also a symptom of the suicidal distress of Late Modernity and its will to perish. For, it is true, “without vision the people perish” or, as Nietzsche put it equivalently, those who have a why, can put up with any how.

I think it was Sadhguru who said that he would not be surprised if, in one or two generations, 40% of the population ends their lives by suicide. Think “Jonestown” writ large. But also think “suicide by cop” writ large. Think mass murder-suicide writ large, too. This also belongs to the possibility of Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”. Even though we speak of Late Modernity pursuing a “suicidal course”, everyone thinks that this is inadvertent and unintended consequence. Sadhguru (and even Nietzsche) are suggesting it’s not inadvertent, but intentional — the logical fulfillment of the Era’s distress, existential malaise and dukkha.

That shocking forecast sounds absolutely incredible, absolutely impossible, absolutely far-fetched, the stuff of science fiction or horror movies. But I fear Sadhguru might be right, and that the “suicidal course” may be quite literally true — a literal “shedding the human form” — but also an aspect of the restructuration of human consciousness.

One response to “Age of Distress”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Among such “worst-case scenarios” as painted above (inclusive of Sadhguru’s remarks), I just noted this by Michael Klare

    No longer a discourse about avoiding catastrophe, but of surviving it.

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