Monday 17 June 2013

Escaping alienation into Art, or maybe Mythology?


I think I first became fully aware of alienation - the meaninglessness, purposelessness, disconnectedness of mainstream modern life - in the summer of 1981 (a very similar summer and in the same place as this one, which is why I am reminded of it) when reading JD Salinger's 'Glass Family' novellas (Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, Franny, Zooey, Seymour).


What I got from Salinger, was that the escape from alienation was into Art - probably into being an artist (and thus living inside the process of creation); and this became as kind of 'hidden agenda' for me from that time and for many years.

(Salinger also talks much of Eastern Meditative religions and of a Christianity seem through this lens - but these are means to Art, rather than ends in themselves.)

Escape into Art didn't work - and probably it never really has worked^, except maybe with Goethe - although one can be misled into thinking it has worked by artistic recreations of an artist's life.


Around 20 years later I engaged with Joseph Campbell and began to re-re-re-read Jung from the perspective that alienated meaninglessness could be cured by escaping into myth - and that myth was actually a representation of humanity's shared inner reality.

Thus myth, heroic journeys and quests; stories from all kinds of places and cultures which seemed to have a special power, breadth, resonance; were perceived as symbolically depicting not merely the escape from misery, or the search for pleasure, nor even the pursuit of assimilating ecstasy... but an adventure or task undertaken for the well-being of other people, of the community.

But this simply kicked the can further down the road.

Because if my life would not be justified - wold not be meaningful or purposeful - by seeking comfort, distraction, and ecstasy - then why should things be different when my life is dedicated to enabling increased comfort, distraction and ecstasy for other people?

Somewhere, there has to be some-thing worthwhile in and of itself.


One response to my earlier desire to escape alienation into Art had been to leave medicine for science - which was supposed to sustain and advance medicine; then to leave science for Art, specifically the study and practice of literature - which I supposed to be the 'end' for which medicine and science provided the 'means'.

Yet Art turned out to be just another means, and not an end in itself.


What of mythology? I perceived mythology to underlie Art, to be even-more-fundamental than Art - such that the best Art was mythical.

Yet if myth was supposed to move us, I found that sometimes it did and sometimes (more often) it didn't - and although myth was asserted to be universal and powerful (The Power of Myth was the name of Joseph Campbell's popular PBS TV documentary) - in actuality myth often was not powerful, and no myth seemed to be universally powerful - such that most people preferred soap operas, sexual titillation and trashy news stories and never exposed themselves to actual myths or anything approaching such.

So myth turned-out to be as atomic, subjective and variable, and as alienated, as anything else in modern culture - not an answer nor an antidote.


Only after I had exhausted medicine, science, art and mythology did I finally turn to religion; and to Christianity, which I had previously always excluded from my search.

And there was the answer - the problem framed, described, its consequences delineated. Staring me in the face.


^The Re-enchantment of the World: Art versus Religion, by Gordon Graham


John said...

I have a theory that the meaninglessness of the modern West has to do with a massive disproportion between expectations and reality. As a result of our religion, we have learned to expect too much from the universe. We have been taught to see the world as this tremendously important and meaningful place, and now we find that it isn't quite that important, so we think it meaningless.

Societies that have other religious traditions don't collapse into meaninglessness when they confront modern science - they just never expected that much from the world to begin with. In fact, Buddhism as a religion can be said from one point of view to be a systematic conditioning to accept less from the world, to accept the world "as it is", in all its finitude and limitation, as "good enough" - to cease constantly yearning for "more". Early Buddhists were quite cheerful and an atmosphere of good cheer is characteristic of Buddhism to this day.

The West, however, through its transcendant religion has been culturally conditioned for millenia to have huge expectations from the world - and of course when it turns out the world isn't like that, despair sets in. But the way back to health is to gradually learn to expect from the world only what it can really deliver, something more modest than you wished for. But this requires great spiritual discipline and indeed a curtailment of a tendency is fundamental to Western culture - the drive to always reach out for the grandiose and the enormous, a tendency that ends by producing despair, restlessness, and discontent, as the whole universe begins to seem "not good enough" after a certain point.

Anonymous said...

Current entertainment (I'm thinking of HBO and basic cable shows in particular, the kind the sophisticates watch) is highly nihilistic. I think this addresses people's alienation by telling them- "Look at these people with beauty, money, power. They are still miserable and rotten on top of it. Don't feel too bad, the people at the top are no better than you, and probably worse."

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I disagree strongly!

I am impressed how little difference there is in the collapse of morale between (say) East Asia, or the Asian Subcontinent - and the widely scattered Anglosphere, or Western Europe - for example all have suffered a profound, catastrophic collapse in fertility among the elites.

Indeed East Asia is the worst in this regard. All are paralyzed, all seem to be self loathing and suicidal in proportion as they are 'developed' and wealthy.

Buddhism is not cheerful, but explicitly a religion of absolute negation and annihilation of the individual into everything - although self-identified Buddhists may be cheerful.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - I agree. I think a great deal of mass media output is actually *designed* to make us despair - even/ especially the comedy - and it does a very good job of it!

The Crow said...

Many say: "Nothing will bring you happiness".
But the truth is: nothing WILL bring you happiness.

John said...

It's true that on some measures Asia is as bad as us, but on so many levels it is surely much better. They have retained an extremely high level of civility and decorum, reject suicide through immigration, revere their culture rather than hate it, and speak of themselves with respect rather than the self-denigration typical of the West. Moreover, they dress conspicuously well and remain thin, which sounds trivial but is significant in that it shows that the element of formality and public spirit is still alive, as well as self-discipline. High standards in personal appearance, dead in the West, suggest self-respect as well as respect for society. Asians are also big savers, suggesting a concern for futurity.Surely all this is indisputable, and surely this suggests a healthy culture with belief in itself, at least far, far more so than ourselves.

I am not sure having fewer children is enough to counteract this record, or that it is even necessarily bad in itself since modern population levels can be seen as artificially high. The world can do with a bit of shrinking for a while.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I'm not arguing which is best out of the West and NE Asia, but that the differences in stance are not striking or significant - certainly Asia is not the answer.

I personally regard chosen (de facto) average sterility among the elites as an *extreme* pathology, evidence of a very profound biological dysfunction. That's how it would be regarded in any animal.

The main source of enduring and significant East West societal differences is, I think, due to differences in genetic makeup - affecting both intelligence and personality and probably other psychological factors which are not currently adequately characterized.

But, compared with the rest of the world, the similarities between NE Asia and the West are more important than the differences. In particular, the nature of these societies is exceptionally dependent on the elite leadership, since the people are exceptionally malleable - and both have similarly corrupted leadership.

John said...

I understand what you are saying, Bruce. You have a point.

I don't think Asia is the answer for us, but I think it can point the way back towards elements within our own tradition that lead to acceptance of the finite nature of self and life, and finding value in it. The Roman poet Horace is a very good example of the kind of life philosophy I mean, and an even better example is Montaigne. Both those writer, but especially Montaigne, have led me back from the brink of despair and helped me find life valuable again. Unfortunately I found the path of religion closed for me. It was only later that I found to my surprise that Asia has incredibly similar traditions.

But we will probably disagree on this :)