The Mood of Henry Rollins
The rocker, Henry Rollins — whose look of square-jawed determination suggests the “universal soldier” rather than the sensitive artist that he is — has written an interesting piece that appears in today’s Guardian: “Our species is a ruinous pain in the ass“. It is, for me, an interesting piece not only because it speaks to that mood of bad conscience and suicidal self-loathing and near despair afflicting the human species (that Nietzsche so aptly described in the opening pages of his Thus Spake Zarathustra), but also because it is so rich in what it does not say.
Yes, it is kind of nihilistic in its mood of human self-loathing and “self-disgust” (for here Rollins is not speaking of himself alone, but as an agent of the species itself), but “between the lines” one also reads a longing, a yearning, a higher aspiration for self-transcendence that somehow seems frustrated by “reality”. And in this too, Rollins simply speaks as a representative of the species also. Here, in this one man, is an embodied example of Gebser’s “double-movement” of the times — the pendulum swing between a great “No” and a great “Yes” to existence. It’s the mood that I once put into a riddle: “Everything is as it should be. Nothing is as it could be.”
The enigma of human existence was best expressed in that wonderful TED talk given by Jill Bolte-Taylor. Right here, right now “we are whole, we are perfect, we are beautiful”. And yet we are deeply flawed, even hideous creatures at the same time. What a paradox! I once read a book by Richard Holloway entitled Between the Monster and the Saint which spoke to that Jekyll-and-Hyde coincidentia oppositorum that is a human being, that apparently schizophrenic disposition of the human mind that has become highly accentuated at “the end of history”, also cast by others as a tension between “the ego” and “the soul”, or even as “the consciousness” and the “unconsciousness”; or, indeed, even as McGilchrist’s “divided brain” with its two separate cognitive processes and modes of attention standing in seeming radical opposition and in an apparent contradiction to one another as “the master” and as the usurping “emissary”. “Satan is ever the ape of God” means what, if not the perfect description of this relationship between the egoic nature focussed in the left-hemisphere of the brain and the “soul nature”, as it were, whose principal seat is in the right-hemisphere of the brain and is its mode of perception? The monster and the saint are not that far apart, and yet they are. And this is what is exemplified in Rollins’ piece — a sensitive mind grieving for the tragedy of the world and seeing no exit from this pain and grief except in self-extinction.
Rollins’ sense of being trapped in an intractable predicament or dilemma with no apparent exit except self-annihilation also reflects McGilchrist’s concern that the usurping left-hemisphere mode of attention which we call “ego consciousness” is busy shutting down all the exits beyond itself — the perfect reflection of Nietzsche’s observation that “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”, a statement that takes on added poignancy in light of McGilchrist’s study of brain asymmetry and the divided brain.
Upon his Enlightenment, the Buddha exulted: “O how wonderful, wonderful! Everything is perfect just as it is”. And yet it is not. Siddhartha would not have gone in search of the truth if he had not perceived the imperfections of humanity and existence. That paradox results in what could be considered the principal paradox of Buddhism: “nirvana and samsara are the same. Nirvana and samsara are not the same”. The testimony of Bolte-Taylor and that of Iain McGilchrist suggests that nirvana and samsara have something to do with the divided brain, and the estrangement of the left-hemisphere mode of attention from the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention. The demon Mara, Lord of Illusions, Prince of Lies, Architect of the Ulro (in Blake’s terms therefore the false god “Urizen”) is the brain’s left-hemisphere become divorced and alienated from its roots in the right hemiphere’s mode of attention, the ego-nature — the Prodigal Son — estranged from the soul-nature, the intellectual estranged from the intuitional, the rational estranged from the Reason.
Of all the dreadful things about Late Modernity, Margaret Thatcher’s TINA principle (“There is No Alternative”) augmented by Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” are the most dreadful. “No exit” is the meaning of that. And it shouldn’t then come as a surprise (but as a logical development) that we enter this bubble world called “the Anthropocene” too. These issues are connected, and this claustrophobia of a self-absorbed, self-enclosed human mind becomes the near despair of Henry Rollins. And yet Jill Bolte-Taylor, in any case, insists we do have a choice. We can step to the right of the left-hemisphere of the brain and its mode of perception. There is an alternative. We can choose to see things differently than they appear to be, compelled as we seem to be by mere habit to routine processing of the data of sense perception according to familiar formulae, cliches, assumptions, commonplaces or “the common sense”.
“Become what you are!” That was Nietzsche’s paradoxical formula for self-overcoming, for getting beyond the “human, all-too human”, which is, after all, merely the self-image. Connected with that formula is his other imperative: “Be true to the Earth!” Love your mother. For Nietzsche, the great blasphemy was the betrayal of the Earth. There is even a curious episode in the life of Mohammad that speaks to this. After his forces had seized Mecca, Mohammad had all the idols and icons in the Kaaba destroyed except for one. He forbade an image of Mary to be destroyed. The great iconoclast was deeply moved by the image of Mary as an archetype of the Mother, Gaia. So, too, the Buddha in his famous gesture called “the Earth witness Mudra”, touched the Earth upon his enlightenment and called upon Earth to bear true witness and to certify his liberation before the demon Mara, which she duly did.
These gestures of the great spiritual teachers (including Aurobindo) attest to the fact that there is no spirituality, no self-transcendence possible, without love of the Earth and the support of the Earth. And I think it’s safe to say that “otherworldliness” hasn’t got much to do with spirituality at all and is, in fact, its antithesis, the result of the hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere of the brain in an abstract metaphysics that now had become completely estranged from the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention. Instead of being a soul, it was now a matter of “having” a soul, and the “kingdom of heaven” or “paradise” instead of being implicate in the human form itself as the mode of being of the right-hemisphere, became, instead, “the other world” or the “beyond”. This abstracting metaphysics or “otherworldliness” is in no wise changed by merely translating it into a virtual reality or artificial nature — this narcissistic and claustrophobic construct called the “Anthroobscene”, as it were.
All we see now upon the surface of this bubble or house of mirrors are nauseating images of ourselves resulting in the kind of self-disgust and self-loathing expressed by Henry Rollins, along with the perception that there seems to be no exit from this bubble except self-extermination. But, as Nietzsche knew, that self-loathing and self-disgust can not only serve as a springboard to self-transcendence, but may very well be the process of self-overcoming. When we come to see ourselves as something loathsome (as Jill Bolte-Taylor did during her stroke) it can very well signal that something else is already emergent. This was the experience of Eckhart Tolle as recorded in the introduction to his book The Power of Now. Extreme self-loathing accompanied self-transcendence also in a kind of coincidentia oppositorum.
So, I guess there is hope still to be found in our self-loathing and self-disgust, because this disgust at being “human, all-too human” can ironically be the “exit” to self-overcoming that McGilchrist thinks is fast becoming impossible or even no longer exists.