Stephen Marche has a pretty significant article on “survivalism” and “America’s midlife crisis” in today’s Guardian. At least, I think it’s a pretty significant article. Marche puts the question there whether “America [is] falling apart for real this time?”, and as part of his attempt to try to come up with an answer to that question he attended a recent “prepper and survivalist summit” in Bowling Green, which he evidently believes, pars pro toto, served as a microcosm for the more general mood and state of America (although I would add, too, not just America).
Ultimately, I think he doesn’t resolve the question. But the comparison America’s current plight to “midlife crisis” — that America is in suspense somewhere between its beginning and its ending — does remind of the dynamic of enantiodromia, — reversal at the extremity, or a coincidentia oppositorum (which is pretty much the meaning of a “midlife crisis”). And if you interpret “midlife crisis” as a descriptive metaphor for the dynamics of enantiodromia, it becomes pretty significant indeed. As befits enantiodromia, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at it.
So many strange things occurred to me as I read Marche’s account, especially coming as it does on the heels of my previous post on how Vitruvian Man has become a caricature of himself — the noble Renaissance ideal of the humanistic, the rational and the proportional finally become the caricature of the fully rationalised “Average Joe and Average Josephine”. Marche, too, finds that the participants in the survivalist summit, finally, are only nostalgic caricatures of the founding “pioneer” and “frontiersman” type who stand as iconic and mythic figures in the founding of America. The noble ideal become the ignoble caricature.
But, the question of whether America is “falling apart for real this time?” comes also upon the heels of the same question put in yesterday’s Guardian about the “splintering” of the social cohesion of British society (much of that thanks to Margaret Thatcher and her love of Friedrich Hayek, I might add. Ironically, Marche mentions how Friedrich Hayek’s books were prominently displayed at the Bowling Green survivalist summit as well, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy). So, if America is “falling apart this time” it’s an affliction that extends well beyond American shores. Isn’t it, rather, the splintering and disintegration of the Modern Era? It’s that connection with Jean Gebser’s diagnosis of the breakdown of the modern consciousness structure — not just the American identity and falling apart of its social cohesion — that intrigued me about Marche’s article.
Which is why I think you should read it, if not study it, although its full significance might not be apparent at first blush unless you connect the dots with Gebser’s interpretation of the state of the mental-rational/perspectival consciousness structure.
Le ridicule tue. Rosenstock-Huessy apparently knew of no other way by which society, or rather new and more vital forms and ways of life, rids itself of expired, dead, or deficient forms and ways of life than through ridicule and mockery of them. But by that time they become vulnerable to ridicule and mockery, they have become caricatures of themselves anyway. Such, it seems, has been the fate of Vitruvian Man.
I sometimes try to put myself in the shoes of the Enlightenment philosophe the Marquis de Condorcet who, once waxing enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new “Age of Reason”, effused about “the infinite perfectibility of man” with the dawn of the Age of Reason. What would the good Marquis be thinking about that if he were alive today to witness “post-modernity”? What is this “post-modernity” but the self-caricature of Vitruvian Man?
I was reminded in reading Marche’s article of the famous quip by Karl Marx that history does indeed repeat itself, only first as tragedy, then as farce — that is to say, as a caricature of itself. Would Marx today appreciate the irony of that remark as regards the course of his own revolutionary philosophy? The Marxian revolutions did, indeed, begin in tragedy but then ended as farce and caricature (Adam Curtis’s “hypernormalisation” being the caricature and farce). The Maoist revolution in China ends by reviving the corpse of Confucius. Marx and the Marquis share a lot in common — the optimism of the Age of Reason in the infinite perfectibility of Vitruvian Man — but I’m sure disappointment and disillusionment would be their response to it all if they were around today. Or, maybe they would become “Gebserians”?
It is perhaps notable, though, that by the time the Communist states of Russia and Eastern Europe collapsed after 1989, everybody already knew they had become caricatures of themselves — even the ruling Parties and Central Committees. (There is something of that sense in the great German film The Lives of Others). That’s why they were so bloodless when they finally threw in the towel. Nobody was willing for fight for what had become farce and caricature. And that too is probably our only hope of avoiding the very worst outcomes in the future.
Caricature is an interesting word. It’s related to the word “carriage” or wagon, and it signifies something overloaded or “exaggerated” — or what is implied in the word “hyper-” (as hyper-partisan, hyper-nationalist, hyperbole, hyper-this or hyper-that). Rosenstock-Huessy uses the word “caricature” for something that travels too far along one of the arms of his “cross of reality” at the expense of the whole. It result is caricature, or what we might describe as hyper-subjectivity, or hyper-objectivity, or hyper-trajectivity (reactionary) or hyper-prejectivity. Or, to put that another way, too much inwardness, too much outwardness, too much backwardness or too much forwardness. That’s the bias or exaggeration that ends as caricature. That exaggeration corresponds to what Gebser calls “distantiation” or self-alienation from the “vital centre”, and is what is described by W.B. Yeats, also in his ominous poem “The Second Coming“. The “Anti-Christ” of Revelation is also a caricature, and that’s what it means to say that “Satan is but the ape of God”. Nietzsche’s “Last Man” is a caricature. Blake’s “Urizen” and Urizenic Man is a caricature, as is Mumford’s and Seidenberg’s “Post-Historic Man” a caricature.
A caricature is, in other words, the exhausted form of a formerly idealised type that has become, in a sense, image without substance. Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” is also a caricature of man. The “self-loathing” that Nietzsche thought was the first step in self-overcoming is not a loathing for the hidden real and authentic man or woman, but for the caricature. But that implies that one wakes up to the fact that one is only a caricature, and being rid of the caricature is no loss at all.
A “midlife crisis” can’t really be assessed in terms of years. It’s the pivot between life and death, or permanence and change or Genesis and Nihilism, or between tragedy and farce, for that matter. We are always at “midlife” in that sense, for we never know when our end will come. In a sense, “midlife crisis” is to be always at the centre of the Sacred Hoop or the cross of reality — “all in the middle of its happening” as Rumi put it. We are “midlife” whenever we seek to balance Soul and World and Origin and Destiny according to “ecodynamic laws”, which is the true ecology of the fourfold self of mind, body, soul, and spirit (or Blake’s “four Zoas”).
As Castaneda’s teacher, don Juan, put it, also in terms of “midlife crisis”, the art of the warrior is “to balance the wonder of being alive with the terror of being alive”. Midlife crisis is also what Rumi describes in his poem “Green Ears“. “It’s all in the middle of its happening”.
Marche’s article brings all that and still more to mind. I’m sure the participants in the Preppers and Survivalists Summit are learning some very useful skills. And I’m sure they’re learning them for all the wrong reasons — for reasons of “bugging-out”. But then, again, my own supervisor at university thought that “heading to the hills” by founding and retreating to “secular monasteries” built in the wilds of northern Canada was the only sane response to what he was sure was a coming Dark Age. (But, if I do that I won’t be taking along any Friedrich Hayek or Ayn Rand books to preserve for posterity).
“…we’re all preparing for the catastrophes we want rather than the ones we’re going to get”, Marche quips. I think that’s rather the case. As to caricature,
“When I look around the room full of mostly forty-ish guys, I know the number one way everyone in that room could prepare for the end of civilization: lose 40lb. I’m no expert, understand, but I figure if the world system crashes, the ability to run five miles without passing out has to be worth something.” LOL.
But seriously, folks… mockery aside, something Marche writes here is certainly poignant and perhaps to the point,
“Their version of the collapse is highly specific. It is a world without technology in which roving bands attempt to raid your hard-won supplies, and self-sufficiency and self-defense determine survival. It’s all suspiciously similar to what the American frontier looked like – or, rather, what the American frontier looks like in the movies. The students are often enjoined to “think like the pioneers”. The preppers and survivalists aren’t really imagining the end of America. They’re imagining it beginning again.
And I know how they feel. Nostalgia mixed with regret is the sweetest poison. The longing for the moment when you might have become a different person – the person you were supposed to be rather than the person you are now – that is the unassuageable hunger. Apparently it afflicts nations as well as people. That dream is the most poignant, the most beautiful, the true American dream. If you could wipe the slate clean, if you could start over, tear away the ever-more-tightly-embracing bonds of family and history and religion, you could find out who you are, freely, purely.”
Nihilism, in other words. That mood is what men like Brannon feed on. Yet, it is self-contradictory. The “ever-man-for-himself” attitude in the face of social catastrophe is, itself, the social catastrophe. It becomes, like so much today, it’s own self-fulfilling prophecy.