Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

While we have been focused on partisan divides over government policy and personnel, an almost invisible erosion of the foundations of our political system has been taking place. Public support for the rule of law and democracy can no longer be taken for granted.– Austin Sarat, The Guardian, 11. February, 2017.

It’s not a very comfortable place to be, between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea — or, between Scylla and Charybdis. It’s the situation we call “Double-Bind”, and we know from R.D. Laing’s clinical psychiatric studies the role of the double-bind as seeding the conditions for mental illness or “cognitive dissonance”, which we suffer today as “Double-Talk”, “Double-Think”, and “Double-Standard”. These are the factors making for “the New Normal”, which, translated, means “Dead End”. This Dead End has the potential, also, to be more than a metaphor.

The Double-Bind situation is the point where reason and logic breakdown. In previous posts, we described that as the “ears of the wolf dilemma“. It’s the point where logic and reason cease to be effective guides to action, and resolve nothing. Nemesis is just another name for “Dead End”.

Still, those of you who know Gebser’s cultural philosophy (or Nietzsche for that matter) also know that the Dead End may also be useful and fruitful, setting the conditions for the leap into the unknown and the untried — der Sprung or der Ur-sprung. These are the “times that try men’s souls”, as Tom Paine once put it where our logic cannot help us, but our faith can, for which reason Paine could not speak of men’s “minds” being tried but of “souls”. Faith is always about the future, not the past. A new and revivified faith is what Nietzsche tried to cultivate — a faith strong enough to outlast, outrun, and finally prevail over his anticipated tragedy of “two centuries of nihilism” as our own Dead End. Nietzsche’s faith is not in founding a new belief or moral system, but in the Dionysian factor and force — the same called “the life-force power of the universe” by Jill Bolte-Taylor. This is what Nietzsche alluded to in his description of the “will to power” as fundamental operative force in the cosmos.

Those who don’t understand that will always misunderstand Nietzsche’s intent. Nietzsche was simply restating, in his terms of the Dionysian, the same “faith of a grain of mustard seed” or of “the lilies of the valley”. Nietzsche’s “death of God” was just another way of saying “Dead End”, where God as “Universal Reason” would eventually fail us — Blake’s mad and insane god called “Urizen”. And coincident with this death of God was the rise of that dead end and species of decadence he called “the Last Man”.

Know this, then, that Nietzsche’s “Last Man” is what Gebser describes as the “mental-rational consciousness structure” now functioning in “deficient mode”. Every particular consciousness structure — the magical and the mythical also — eventually reaches its dead end through hyper-articulation or over-specialisation, and exhausts itself in double-bind. But it’s precisely at that point — it’s Nemesis and dead end — that the new mutation, transformation, or metamorphosis has its greatest potentiality. There is a great deal of transformative (but also destructive) potential when one is caught between the  Scylla and Charybdis of the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

I’ve cited Austin Sarat’s article in today’s Guardian as illustrative of this dead end. Although the title is “American’s aren’t as attached to democracy as you might think“, the situation described there isn’t exclusive to the United States. It’s simply further testimony to the “malaise of modernity” and to the era’s demoralisation and dispiritedness. It’s particularly revealing how the name “democracy” now means something different for an older generation than for a younger generation (those born, tellingly, around and since 1980 or s0). There’s a great deal of cynicism about “democracy” for those who have grown up during the hegemony of neo-liberal orthodoxy, Thatcher’s TINA principle, the “end of history”, and “the new normal”. This debased and decadent form of “democracy” is all they’ve known since Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” or Fukuyama’s “end of history”. They’ve been promised bread but have been given a stone, and are now seemingly prepared to throw the whole thing overboard. Unfortunately, that cynicism serves the purposes of the authoritarian right quite well, which is cynical reason and cynical politicking at its very worst.

But, as Nietzsche knew, cynical reason was just another name for “devaluation of values” and thus nihilism, and cynical reason is the same “deficient mode” of the mental-rational consciousness structure described by Gebser. This cynicism Nietzsche knew well because he was cynical himself, and his writing show it — he was constantly in a struggle between that cynicism and his faith in the Dionysian, which is one reason why so many find Nietzsche contradictory. He lived out the tension between the life-pole and death-pole, between the eros and thanatos, of the psyche, with “one foot in life and the other in the grave”, as he put it.

We need to appreciate the fact of this “dead end”, consciously and soberly, if there is any prospect for transformative change —  a “plus mutation” rather than a “minus mutation” as Gebser put it. Many people are soberly aware of the Dead End and are currently struggling to articulate a new faith in the powers of life and spirit to outrun the symptoms of morbidity and decay — cynicism and nihilism. “Green Hermeticism“, for example, but there are many others. “Dionysus” is the “Green Man” of European folklore.

And it’s an interesting fact that the early Christians equated Jesus with Dionysus, a fact surely known to Nietzsche, and of greatest significance for our own time as well, as for interpreting why Heraclitus held that Dionysus and Hades were the same, corresponding to the life-pole and death-pole of the psyche. As Dionysos descends to Hades and rises again as Dionysus, so did Jesus descend and rise transfigured. And it’s this close association of Jesus with Dionysus that, for some Christian thinkers like Rosenstock-Huessy (and probably Gebser as well) that marks the dead end of the “Pauline Era” and the onset of “the Johannine Era”, the former being Age of the Church and the latter being “Age of the Spirit”, which would correspond to Gebser’s “integral consciousness”.

That, at least, is the theme of Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Christian Future; or, the modern mind outrun. Contrary to what the title might suggest, it is quite ecumenical, which, in Gebser’s terms, means holistic or integralist. (It’s worth reading for those who want to understand what is meant by “Johannine Age” or “Age of the Spirit” as something beyond modernity’s Dead End).

Reading Sarat’s article might feel a bit discouraging — the evident loss of confidence in the legitimacy of democratic institutions and in democracy itself, which is always something I feared would happen with Thatcher’s devaluation of society and democracy in favour of neo-liberal hegemony and then Fukuyama’s “end of history” arrived to seal it. I don’t see the present situation of Dead End and the authoritarian (if not totalitarian) turning as anything but the culmination of that self-contradictory and self-negating logic that began with “the death of God”.

And it is somewhat ironic and absurd that those who claim Nietzsche as their own authority now seek to rollback history in a grand restoration of the Pauline Age through a cynical and reactionary restoration of “Judeo-Christian civilisation”, which they could only do by a coercive and perhaps violent “cultural revolution” of their own (Steve Bannon’s not the only one who seeks such a return to the 19th century).

But, then again, it is the Age of Pretence and of the fake and of the “genuine imitation”, otherwise known as “Land of Idols” or Blake’s Ulro (otherwise known as “the Bubble of Perception”, which is just another term for “echo chamber”. And “Echo” brings to mind the myth of Narcissus and Echo).



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