Monday, December 14, 2009

Life, Death and Lost Generations

Part 20 of Prisoners of the Real

In the 1920s, the artistic movement called dadaism emerged as the extreme of individualism, combining an open rejection of the audience with the belief that real communication was impossible. The godfather of surrealism, Andre Breton, claimed that in the future the two fundamental states of mind – dream and reality – would be merged into a super-reality.

For the outsiders of the "Great Society" 40 years later, drugs offered another glimpse of this fusion, while novels and films celebrated it.

Breton argued that by abolishing reason and logic, and along with them the sexual taboos of bourgeois society, human beings could liberate themselves from the problems of the material world. They could transcend the duties and mores of the "real." Creation of a new system of values would eventually return them to a state of true innocence. Both the "lost" and "now generations" embraced this belief and found, for a time, that through a defiance of rationality they could glimpse the outsider's Truth.

The religion of art provided the "lost generation" with a sense of mission. Forbidden themes were opened for discussion, and the literature of the period soared. At the same time, however, the fates of many artists and their followers turned bleak. The new gods of liquor, sex, violence, and art led them into a decline, since they were trying to draw upon resources which, in many instances, they didn't possess. Beginning with the protest of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and escalating into a series of suicides, the elastic band of separation from the "serious world" was stretched to the snapping point.


At the end of the 60s a similar crash occurred. Violence, repression and death blanketed the US: the killing of students at Kent and Jackson State, the murder of Black Panthers, bombings by the Weather Underground, and the suicides of cultural icons such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

How limited the options looked: individual consciousness leading to a destructive social revolution, or conditioned rationalism that produced a society of robots. Deadly times had led to extreme, dichotomous responses. Of course, the same division can exist within the individual. Another play by John Osborne revealed both poles within the character of Martin Luther. Stubborn and iconoclastic, resentful of authority and blind to compromise, Osborne's Luther is a divided man who believes in individual conscience and yet can't dispel his own guilt. He hates himself and can love only others.

After posting the 95 Theses, Luther speaks against indulgences. Both the self-lacerating monk and the revolutionary are evident as he baits his congregation. "Your emptiness will be frothing over," he says, "at the sight of a strand of Jesus' beard, at one of the nails driven into his hands, and at the remains of the loaf at the Last Supper. Shells for shells, empty things for empty men."

Luther has had a revelation: "The just shall live by faith... Reason is the devil's whore, born of one stinking goat called Aristotle, which believes that good works make a good man. But the truth is that the just shall live by faith alone." But this revelation, as powerful as it is, can't save him once the political implications of his words are seized by discontented masses. In the face of an armed revolt by the peasants of Swabia, who demand the abolition of serfdom and the preaching of the pure gospel, Luther sides with the rulers and calls for extermination of the protestors. Reform, he has decided, must occur within the system.

The uprising is violently squelched. Afterward a battle-tired knight tells Luther, "You could even have brought freedom and order in at one and the same time." But instead he smothered the spirit and brought on Protestant "angst," which proceeded to haunt us for centuries. Luther became a rational manager, and his choice brought death.

In 1522, Martin Luther decided not to leave the system, and instead acted on its behalf. His choice was another victory for the Robot, the automatic pilot that substitutes routine responses for self-consciousness. The Robot can of course also work in conjunction with consciousness; in fact, such collaboration can enhance our creative activities. But more often it replaces the "will to meaning" with unexamined responses. When this happens, beliefs are often assumed rather than affirmed.

Set loose, the Robot is fully capable of suppressing meaning and supporting a false sense of ethical neutrality that finds its ultimate expression in technicians of death. Pentagon planners, for instance, could coolly plan the bombardment of Vietnam and Iraq by defining the problems as "technical" and ignoring the assumptions of these conflicts. They became observers, standing outside their own designs.


Speaking of Vietnam, Noam Chomsky noted that for the planners all dilemmas were practical, as ethically neutral as the laws of physics:

"If the children in a burn ward in the Quang Ngai hospital disagree, well, they probably don't understand the laws of physics either. By defining problems as technical, one appears hardheaded and realistic, any moral considerations are displaced, and the public is effectively excluded, since clearly technical problems are to be left to experts."

Ethics and history are left behind. The origins of ideas, whether correct or mistaken, are someone else's department. The terms of the technical problem are assumed, so that "counter-insurgency theorists" and experts in "low intensity war" can remain free to address difficulties without bothering to understand them. In a value-free institution, life and death cease to have intrinsic meaning. Negative power becomes an efficient and satisfactory choice, and production can be measured by the number of deaths.

At least the outsider seeks life, hoping to expand the pleasure principle in order to build a new culture. The technician or mechanic, on the other hand, may seek no more than death. As Rollo May has described it, Eros stands across from Thanatos, love in polarity with hate. Regardless of its guise, Joseph Campbell once noted, Eros is always the progenitor, the original creator from which life comes. And Freud, who believed that the elimination of sexual tension through full satisfaction of the libido was self-defeating, since the aim of all life is death, saw Eros as the only possible rescuer. Yet Eros is normally denied in a rational society. Even physical passion is replaced by sexual technique.

In popular fiction, the professional killer often symbolizes the technician as figure of death, a disinterested mercenary working for unknown or irrelevant causes. For such technicians it's best not to know the ends toward which they work, focusing only on their part and giving no thought to the whole. Work goes best when attention is narrowly focused. If understanding expands, on the other hand, the death figure often destroys itself.

Clearly, life in the "serious world" can be just as dangerous as moving outside it. Neither assimilation nor isolation will lead an "arrogant dragon" to personal peace.

Next: Deconstructing Archetypes

To read other chapters, go to
Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey
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