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.


13 responses to “The Mood of Henry Rollins”

  1. davidm58 says :

    I haven’t read the Rollins piece yet, but your description reminds not only of Nietzsche, but also of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man in Notes from Underground.
    Anyway, interesting to read your piece after having read Meg Wheatley’s short article in Kosmos Journal this morning about Sisyphus. Absurd Heroism:

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes, Wheatley’s piece does remind me of what I said about “do nothing” earlier, by which I mean not to get in the way of those emergent forces but nonetheless to acknowledge them, to be vigilant and mindful. Those emergent forces have work to do, and I really do associate them with the energies of the brain’s neglected right-hemisphere, in McGilchrist’s terms — even that sense of self-disgust that Rollins experiences.

      Nietzsche once said that contempt for humanity was his greatest temptation. That’s understandable, I guess. He maneouvred it into something else, though — a “revaluation of values” — it became his spur to self-overcoming, in a sense turning contempt into attempt, if we can put it that way. He didn’t want to feel cynicism, disgust, contempt, so he transmuted them into something else — in effect, he “stepped to the right of his left hemisphere” as Bolte-Taylor described it, and saw his disgust and contempt as really rooted in something else altogether — the ideal of the transhuman, the intuition of a new species of human. The contempt, the disgust was merely the mirror image of the positive intuition.

      There is, I think, an implicit transformative logic to what Gebser calls “the irruption”, which is the emergent. So, by “do nothing”, i mean something akin to “let go” — the practice of letting go which is meditation. The left hemisphere of the brain needs to release its grasp on this, its attempt to control it. It must, in a sense, “bear witness’ only to the spontaneous logic of the emergent.

      I think this is what Wheatley is getting at too.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I love that video of Jill Bolte-Taylor. It’s very rich. Note that when she realised she was having a stroke, she didn’t say “I’m having a stroke!”. It came out “we’re having a stroke! We’re having a stroke!”. That’s unusual isn’t it? Basically, her two “personalities”, each associated with the left and right hemisheres (at least) became copresent to one another as a “we”. I think that “we” signalled that the attention of the right-hemisphere had, in had, in that moment, become “emergent”.

      • Steve Lavendusky says :

        I adhere to the view that the world spirit has given the age marching orders. These orders are being obeyed. The world spirit, this essential, proceeds irresistibly like a closely drawn armored phalanx advancing with imperceptible movement, much as the sun through thick and thin. Innumerable light troops flank it on all sides, throwing themselves into the balance for or against its progress, though most of them are entirely ignorant of what is at stake and merely take head blows as from an invisible hand.


  2. abdulmonem says :

    It seems that the human is programmed on worship and that he can not function without an idol and it seems that self-worship or state worship or commodity worship are the new idols. This is the dilemma of the human once, he forgets or denies that there is one universal god,one unified force,one creative and re-creative energy that has manifested us and keeps manifesting us and everything under us and above us, that deserves such worship, and that the human is charged with the task of knowing himself in order to know his god. It is a question of priority and I like the way Wheatley expressed that priority when she said, let us move from creating successful models to transform the world or other people and focus on transforming ourselves to be good and caring people. It is really sad to see the sensitive artist losing his patience in this gloomy world of ours that needs all patience to help make the shift. It is the difficulty of working with the opposites and that is why the road to god requires human strife and diligent efforts. The difference between intellectual knowledge and intuitive knowledge is very wide, that why we need the visionary artistic open perspective knowledge to move away from the coffin of the scholastic knowledge and that is exactly the message of all prophets to relieve humankind from the mortified and ossified inherited language that is no longer serve the dynamic vitality of life.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    I’ve just begun reading Thomas Berry’s The Great Work and came across this quote from the noted neo-con Charles Krauthammer that appeared in Time, 17. June, 1991 concerning the controversy over the preservation of the spotted owl (of some current significance also because it is involved in the militia’s takeover of the wildlife refuge in Oregon)

    “Nature is our ward, not our master. It is to be respected and even cultivated. But it is man’s world. And when man has to choose between his well-being and that of nature, nature will have to accommodate….Man should accommodate only when his fate and that of nature are inextricably bound up. In whatever situation the principle is the same; protect the environment because it is man’s environment.”

    That’s the “Anthropocene” for you basically — a construct of arrogance. The dichotomising mentality in full display — a thoroughly sickening and repulsive dualism. Nature is allowed to be only in one of two modes — either as “ward” (or servant or property) or as “master”. As “ward” or servant the Earth exists only to satisfy man’s appetites. Otherwise, it has no intrinsic value of its own. I can’t help perceive in this also a misogynistic attitude towards the feminine more generally.

    • davidm58 says :

      Oh wow, thanks for mentioning the Krauthammer essay. I remember reading that essay, and I’ve been wanting to find it again. At the time I was a conservative evangelical Christian, and a budding environmentalist. And so at that time the Krauthammer essay made a lot of sense to me. It seemed like a kind of middle ground. Living in WA state, the spotted owl issue was very much a topic of conversation, and many of my other conservative acquaintances were being pushed further to the right (anantiadromia) in response to the new regulations and the extreme environmental warriors (spiking trees, etc). I thought at the time that Krauthammer offered a reasonable middle ground.

      Of course now I no longer resonate with Krauthammer’s neo-liberalism. Here’s the essay, but unfortunately most of it is behind a paywall.,9171,973199,00.html

      And I’ve been meaning to read Thomas Berry for a long time, but haven’t gotten around to that yet.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    Just thought I would mention this, although I’m only about half-way through his book, but if anyone wants to know what Nietzsche’s “be true to the Earth!” really means, Thomas Berry’s The Great Work: Our Way into the Future is it. It’s also a pretty good example of the early incipience of the integral consciousness.

    It is, in a sense, Nietzsche’s Dionysian through and through in its praise of “wildness and the sacred”, but oddly Nietzsche doesn’t come in for a mention at all. That’s all to the good, actually, because it means that its coming from that place of authenticity within Berry himself.

  5. abdulmonem says :

    Last night I was thinking of the unified consciousness field in which all the humans past and present tap into to learn their way in this complex and divided world. The original field that make me compassionate to everything around me including me. The real authentic place of life and its creative source. The unity of existence in its non-physical mode away from the physical realm of separation, as was propagated by Ibn arabi. The place where our intention and attention must go in order to be able to net our life properly.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Those are nice thoughts. (And I still have to get acquainted more with Ibn Arabi). It’s one of the intriguing things that the right-hemisphere of the brain doesn’t perceive the world as “physical” at all, but as a field of energy, an infinite field of energy she calls the “Life Force Power of the Universe”. It’s the left-hemisphere of the brain, the “emissary”, the seat of the ego-consciousness, that by some mysterious process translates this field of energy into the perception of physicality, of solid objects including ourselves.

      So, what is the “physical”? It seems rather stubbornly physical to our senses, and yet it is only a translation — a translation of the infinite field of energy into physical forms. This is the wierdness of it all — that we are, as Bolte-Taylor experienced it also, non-physical beings already integrated with this energy field, and yet at the same time we experience ourselves as apart or separate from it. “Physicality” as it turns out, is only an idea we have of it. This is also coming to be the current understanding of physics, for example, physicist Paul Davies book The Matter Myth

      So, what is physicality? What does it mean to have a body? What does it mean to be “physical”? Well, as it turns out, we aren’t very physical at all, and even more to the point (and this is also the experience of Bolte-Taylor) not really much of us is fully embodied. The by far greater part of our awareness isn’t in the body at all. That was, at least, also my own experience in “the dream of the fish”.

      Both Blake and Seth concur on that, that the body is an image or idea of the “soul” as it understands itself within the framework of physical conditions, the goal of which is to learn to wield the spiritually creative powers responsibly. In that sense, we are all artists, more skillful or less skillful. The more skillful we call “the good”, and the less skillful (and more destructive) we call “the bad”.

      I keep watching Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk over, and over again, and I see more in it each time I do. I’m just preparing something more on this in connection with my reading of Thomas Berry’s The Great Work, which I’ll post probably tomorrow.

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