April 11, 2009

The Hula Hoop Theory of History

Above all, no zeal.

-Talleyrand


There is a curious rhythm to human affairs, or perhaps more specifically, to Western history. Some movement or idea comes along, and everyone gets swept up in its wake. This is it, then; this is the Answer we’ve been looking for. All of those previous answers were wrong; now, at long last, we’re on the right track. In the fullness of time, of course, this shiny new idea loses its luster, betrays us, or even results in the death of millions. So apparently, we were deceived. But wait: here’s the true new idea, the one we should have followed all along. This is the Answer we’ve been looking for. Etc.

The American writer, Eric Hoffer, described this syndrome nearly sixty years ago in a book that also generated a lot of zeal (for a short time, anyway), The True Believer. People convert quite easily, observed Hoffer; they switch from one ism to the next, from Catholicism to Marxism to whatever is next on the horizon. The belief system runs its course, then another one takes its place. What is significant is the energy involved, not the particular target, which could be anything, really. For what drives this engine is the need for psychological reassurance, for Meaning with a capital M–a comprehensive system of belief that explains everything. There is a feeling, largely unacknowledged, that without this we are lost; that life would have no purpose, and history no meaning; that both (as Shakespeare put it) would amount to little more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I call this the Hula Hoop Theory of History, but one could also label it the Pet Rock Theory, or any other craze that grabs our attention for a week or a century. It has a lot in common with the skeptical thinking of the sixteenth-century philosopher Montaigne, who had a great influence on Eric Hoffer, among others. In his Essays, Montaigne pointed out that the new sciences of Copernicus and Paracelsus claimed that the ancient sciences of Aristotle and Ptolemy were false. But how long, he argued, before some future scientist comes along, and says the same thing about Copernicus and Paracelsus? Do we ever really know the truth once and for all?

One might also call this the Drunken Sailor Theory of History, I suppose. Reflecting on the first flush of the French Revolution, William Wordsworth wrote: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.” After Robespierre, the Terror, and the rivers of blood that flowed through the streets of Paris, however, a sober Talleyrand could only comment that what the human race needed, above anything else, was to stay clear of zeal. The path from bliss to barbarism may not be linear, but it does seem to be fairly common, historically speaking.

The latest treatise in the Montaigne-Hoffer school of history is that of the British scholar John Gray, Black Mass. Gray draws liberally on the work of the American historian Carl Becker, whose Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932) has never been surpassed as an analysis of modernity. Becker claimed that the notion of redemption that lay at the heart of Christianity was recast by the philosophers of the French Enlightenment in terms of progress, or secular salvation. Enlightenment utopianism, in a word, was the transformation of Christian eschatology into the belief in the perfectibility of man–heaven on earth, as it were. This would be the Second Coming, the defeat of ignorance and evil (= sin) by means of reliable knowledge, science and technology in particular.

In Gray’s view, the modern “secular fundamentalisms”–Jacobinism, Bolshevism, Fascism, and most recently, globalization–followed directly from this transformation. The result has been satanic–a black or inverted mass (i.e., one recited backwards)–in that these pseudoreligions have all caused a world of harm. The one idea common to all of them is that progress and perfectibility are within our grasp, and can be attained through an historical process whereby true knowledge will defeat ignorance (evil). Thus the world, and our psyches, are saved, no less in the modern secular world than they were claimed to be in the medieval Christian one, because history itself is imbued with Meaning.

Sad to say, the first three of these secular religions proved, in the fullness of time, not to be the Answer but rather the God that failed; and globalization (Thomas Friedman and his devotees notwithstanding) is in the process of going the same route, revealing itself to be a “false dawn.” Of course, says Gray, once globalization and neoliberalism are finally exposed for what they are, and take their proper place on the scrap heap of history, it will hardly be the case that we shall abandon notions of progress, utopia, and Meaning in history. Not a chance. We in the West will have to find another hula hoop, another pet rock, because as a Christian civilization we are simply unable to live without the myth of redemption. Hence, he concludes, the “cycle of order and anarchy will never end.” The tragedy is that we “prefer the romance of a meaningless quest to coping with difficulties that can never be finally overcome.” Hence, “the violence of faith looks set to shape the coming century.”

At the present time, it’s not clear what the next hula hoop will be; but I’m not sure it matters all that much. If the Montaigne-Hoffer-Gray school of historical analysis is correct, what is certain is that there will be no derailing the zeal in advance, no stopping the next ideological-religious binge at the second martini, so to speak. The word “some” has very little meaning
in the world of secular fundamentalism; for us, it’s all or nothing. “Man cannot make a worm,” wrote Montaigne, “yet he will make gods by the dozen.”

For it is all a kind of shamanism, in a way, an attempt to become whole through magic. We are all broken, after all; that is why the promise of redemption has such a powerful hold on us. “I am he who puts together,” declared one Mazatec shaman, some years ago. It finally comes down to a (misguided) attempt at healing, which is reinforced by tribal practice (commonly known as groupthink). I recall attending a conference on postmodernism in the 1990s and being struck by how similar the lectures were, in form, to those of Communist Party members of the 1930s. The “holy names” were different–one cited de Man and Derrida instead of Marx and Lenin–but the glazed eyes and the mantra-like repetition of politically approved phrases were very much the same. Truth be told, I have observed the same hypnotic behavior at all types of academic conferences, from feminism to computer science. You watch, you listen, and you wonder: When will we finally wake up? And you know the horrible truth: never. In effect, we shall continue to erect statues to Napoleon, but never, or rarely, to Montaigne. This much is clear.

Which brings me to what I consider the bottom line, namely the structure of the brain. The frontal lobes, the large neocortex that governs rational thinking and logical processes, is a relative latecomer on the scene, in evolutionary terms. The limbic system, which is the center of impulse and emotion, has been around much longer. The conflict between the two is perhaps best illustrated by the case of the alcoholic sitting at a bar, staring at a frosty stein of beer in front of him. The neocortex says No; the limbic system says Go. Statistically, most drunks die of alcohol poisoning or cirrhosis of the liver; only a very few escape from the siren song of the limbic brain. As Goethe once put it, “the world is not logical; it is psycho-logical.” And that is to put it quite mildly, it seems to me.

We will not escape the ravages of climate change; we shall not avoid the economic and ecological disasters that are integral to global capitalism; not be able to avert an oil crisis, an energy crisis, or a food and water crisis that will become extreme when the world population finally arrives at 10 or 11 billion, by mid-century. These things are not going to be resolved by reason, by the neocortex, no matter how many articles are published on these subjects in learned journals or popular magazines. And they certainly can’t be resolved by the limbic brain, whose function is indulgence, not restraint. Hence, it is a fair guess that we shall start doing things differently only when there is no other choice; and even then, we shall undoubtedly cast our efforts in the form of a shiny new and improved hula hoop, the belief system that will actually be the true one, after all of those false starts; the one we should have been following all along. What to call it? Catastrophism, perhaps. Consider this the founding document.



©Morris Berman, 2009

32 Comments:

Anonymous Peter Y P said...

Fascinating post. I'm quite fond of Gray's work myself, being especially drawn to his integrity, the rigor with which he pursues difficult questions and challenges the therapeutic orientation of the intellectual status quo. Postmodern theorists, however haughty and fashionable the airs they put on, are essentially sentimental post-Christian bien pensants when held up to Gray's stern lucidity. But Gray does subject the Enlightenment to a rather harsh critique, and he has by contrast a positive view of Christianity, insofar as the story of the Fall communicates a truth about human limitations which he considers altogether salutary. The story of the Fall is for Gray a vital corrective to the world-making, utopian projects that he sees endemic to the culture and philosophy of Enlightenment modernity. The latter he regards as a watered-down Christianity stripped of its insights into the problematic aspects of human nature.

7:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The biggest problem I have with your writing, is that I can find in it no errors.

8:54 PM  
Blogger PALOBLANCO-CAJANEGRA said...

I believe this “vicious circle of temporary ideas, dispear runing from one ism to another” goes on and on because of the following cause.

If redemption is to release an obligation, and redemption is the remedy that Christ gave to human sin, through his passion and death, the problem is how to approximate this figure, concept or idea. There is no address to the subject of sin or redemption, because faith, that is supposedly a gift from God to understand the passion of Christ, paradoxically condemns us from the experience of the very passion. For me this is the great trap of the Catholic Church. The gift of faith that God gives to understand the passion, is not just what takes us away from revealing passion in us as “mysterious loving bodies”, but it makes us feel guilty for visually not going to find it, because actually we can`t and for that feel eternal quilt and impotence, but gratitude that someone like god (a alter-ego projection of ourselves) can. No act of passion takes place, but just faith in redemption.

The utopian ideal of progress replaces or anticipates redemption, because impotent faith can not reveal real pasion here in an enchanted world , it cannot reveal its momentum and emotion beyond a reaction to the same capricious impotence . The antithesis of the false passion " allegedly covered by faith " , makes secular salvation posible and a logical conclusion to take , but not a psychological one as Goethe would say. Rational thought and logic processes of progress keep us busy from confronting the real passion for existence... the “real gold” in life.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Prof. Berman,

RE: "an attempt to become whole through magic"

Does the Hula Hoop theory apply to my desire to heal my "broken" physical body? I want to try to avoid magical thinking, and choose the more reality-based option. Traditional Chinese Medicine, or pharmaceutical drugs? Both insist they have the right answer.

Given the depressing situation we find ourselves in, as expressed in your essay, how can we avoid becoming paralyzed and doing nothing at all?

9:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Thank you all for writing. I get quite a kick out of these discussions.

Peter, with regard to Gray and The Fall, you might want to check out his marvelous review of Margaret Atwood's latest book, "Payback". It was published recently in the NY Rev of Bks.

As for Anonymous: tho I strive for perfection, I find I have not quite yet attained the Divine State--much to my chagrin. But stay tuned, I'm sure it'll happen sooner or later.

Andres, aka Paloblanco: the only thing that worries me is a glaring omission in what you wrote, namely the crucial role of tuna fish in human history. Please rethink your ideas in the light of this vital factor.

Art: good pt! Maybe this will help. Some friends tell me that the most quoted line on the Net is from "Coming to Our Senses": 'An idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you.' (I very much doubt that this is the most quoted line on the Net, but what the hell.) The real issue is not the thought-system, but our way of holding it. I for one believe there are empirical truths that are absolute: oil doesn't mix with water, the speed of light is constant, and heavy bodies hit the ground at the same time as light bodies, when dropped from the Tower of Pisa. Good. Similarly, both drugs and acupuncture have empirical truths within them--but in a specific, and contextual, sense. What is NOT true is that Chinese med is The Answer, or that Prozac is. Capitalism, Communism, Jacobinism, and even Fascism (this wd be a long discussion) also contain certain truths, or at least insights; the real issue is how much and in what contexts. The error doesn't lie in appreciating
this or that set of ideas; it lies in swallowing it all, as a whole, without discrimination, and saying "Eureka! I found it! Now I know how to live!" At that point, you become an utter horse's ass.
On the Hula Hoop Theory, history is essentially a parade of horse's asses. That's why everyone has heard of Napoleon, and almost no one has heard of Montaigne. It's also why James Joyce once wrote, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken."
Bottom line, amigo: The human race won't wake up, but *you* can.

Happy Easter to you all!

mb

11:44 PM  
Blogger PALOBLANCO-CAJANEGRA said...

Dear Morris:

Jajajaja, very funny, looks like you’ve been bitten by “Derrida and blowfish”.
Luckily I’m not in for tuna fish, although if we talk about this in new age terms, I’d rather want to know the weight of the backpack I carry (piscis and guilt), than the enlightment I can get to because I think I can free myself from the backpack (aquarius).

I didn`t want to sound cryptic, but as you said we in the West will have to find another hula or ism because we are simply unable to live without the myth of redemption.

So what I wanted to get too really (in my poor English and naïve reflection of biblical matters) is the question: if redemption and guilt is another ism or the mother of all “isms” that believe that progress and perfectibility are within our grasp? I agree the biblical interpretation could have been avoided, jajajja. But yesterday I saw a movie called “Bella” that started like this: “My grandfather always told me, if you want to make God laugh, tell him what your plans are.”

I hate guilt and catholic techniques, but “secular fundamentalisms” are the fathers of new age and Ken Wilber. At least for my the problems of guilt are more real than the ambition to be illuminated with knowledge. After laughing about my “smart ass topics”, jajaja, what can you tell my about guilt-sin, passion-death and redemption beside obviously their important relation with tuna fish?

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

The misguided quest for premature certainty takes myriad forms. One of the most popular forms of late is the proliferation of Darwinian "just-so" stories among scientists. Such types seem ever eager to proclaim that "we" (whoever that may be) are "hard-wired" to do this or that. Whenever I read the phrase "hard-wired", these days, my skepticism meter starts to red-line.

At the end of the day, such zealous quests for certain and fixed knowledge based upon a particular paradigm (over-extended Darwinian concepts, for instance) seem to provide an anxiolytic function, but little else.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

My Dear Palito,

Well I've already answered u via email, but might as well post it here. Tho as time goes on, I'm getting more and more shy about posting anything. I have an ability to enrage people at the drop of a hat. I recall entering a room once, at age 3, and everyone began screaming...altho I think my mother had dressed me funny, and I was wearing some sort of peculiar hat. Anyway, I never had a great rep for calming the waters, if u know what I mean.

So here's what I wrote u:

What more can I tell u, really? The search for redemption is the search for wholeness, or Meaning. This is why when a new ism comes along, people go crazy. Jacques Lacan said the real transference in therapy was to the knowledge that the therapist supposedly had, and was holding back. It's all another version of the Wizard of Oz.

We could just as easily stick a tuna fish on an altar, and people would start worshipping it. About guilt, I can't tell you much. You know what they say: Catholics believe in it, but Jews actually live it. Altho I haven't been feeling very guilty these days.

The worst are those, like Ken Wilber, who wish to *become* tuna fish. I vomit upon them.

Abrazos,
Mauricio

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

On the issue of our thought-system where you state, "The real issue is not the thought-system, but our way of holding it."

In my estimation, this is where humanity is stuck. All cultures condition their young by inoculating them with cultural and familial values. The process by which this happens is telling. It virtually sucks the innocence out of the child and replaces it with a cognitive representation of reality. The conditioning can hold because it is associated with feelings such as guilt, fear and any emotion that will reinforce the conditioning. The simple, sensory ways of the child are abandoned in order to "grow up."

From the cognitive side of life, we adults sense our missing life is somewhere else. Religion and spirituality were seemingly invented to return us to the life we conditioned out of us, but its methods are more for social control than anything else. The mystery is, of course, that when we approach this transformation intellectually we miss the mark completely. And yet we curse ourselves for our lack of understanding as if perfect understanding will elicit a perfect result.

Language is the real culprit, as we have never understood its power to bind our entire being. But this power is not lost to those that try to impose their will on us. It works: even seemingly innocuous advertising can link thought and feeling to make us want things we don't need.

Those that break free of their conditioning and become liberated are often no help to the rest of us. They usually hook up with some complicated system that has yet another set of language for us to parse. So, the "enlightened" person feeds us another set of words and concepts and we remain stuck where we are.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Larry:

Wow! Time 4U 2 start publishing a weekly newsletter, no?

Thank you!

mb

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Not sure why I continue to bother, but...

Quote:

"The worst are those, like Ken Wilber, who wish to *become* tuna fish".

It's perhaps not amiss to observe here that "tuna" spelled backwards is "a nut".

10:35 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Kevin,

I tell you, these New Age gurus proliferate like weeds, and are a sight to behold. I was on that lecture circuit during the 80s and 90s, and it was fascinating to watch them speak for 90 minutes to an adoring crowd on how they had transcended their ego(!). Rollo May and I used to sit on the sidelines and groan.

ps: Keep in mind that fish spelled backwards is hsif.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Dear Morris,

I can only imagine what such a lecture circuit must have been like. In any case, I sensed your sensible skepticism toward all that even in the first book of yours that I read, The Re-enchantment of the World. EST was the focus of your remarks, there, but one can apply them to almost any New Age/guru-driven fad.

What I fear most is a future demagogue who can unite the two most dangerous forms of certainty, scientism and religion, and mold them into a populist framework.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Jimi Jones said...

But Professor Berman! What is the WAY? You must tell us!!

5:41 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Jimi,

You wdn't be related to Jim Jones, by any chance, wd you?

(Ha ha)

mb

10:44 AM  
Blogger Jimi Jones said...

Oh I wish I had a nickel for every time I got asked that. I've suffered Kool-Aid jokes for decades.

Gosh I wish I had something more substantial to add to this discussion. This essay is the PERFECT antidote to my two years in grad school. Once you've read a 40-page essay about how the refrigerator changed human society and gender roles you NEED something to counteract the "deconstruction unchained" of the modern American asylum - er - university. Thank you for writing this.

1:28 PM  
Blogger I-P said...

Hi Mr. Berman,

What you describe seems to me like a collective and ideological version of the whole Hubris/Nemesis tragic hero thing. Perhaps Christ wasn't quite a good enough comedian to have provided a sustainable way out of such a cycle--I mean he did seem to be a pretty serious guy; not respectable exactly, but plenty high toned (and a bit too other worldly IMO).

I suppose the next culture hero (Rousseauian "Law-giver or whatever), if there is one, will have to do better in the comedy department and be more clearly, (besides a "good person") also a rascal and fool like everybody else.

This makes me think of the old trickster gods Legba, Loki, Coyote etc...except I think the whole "God" business is a little passe. Got to be a way to re-enchant the world without bringing back "His Might-Is-Righteousness" under some kind of comic disguise.

Anyway, I think Jung was right in thinking that such a comedian (or group of comedians) is not anymore likely to be on the radar of the present dominant culture than Christ was during Roman times. If there is a way forward it is likely to come as a very big surprise to everybody...

I-P,

ps:

Thanks for turning me on to this "Gray" person. I'll be looking for the "Black Mass" book...

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Your founding document makes valid points and I've noticed the same avid devotion to The Cause you described. The big problem with the "isms" that I see is also the need to scapegoat someone and never a look at the negative consequences of following a course to its logical conclusions. Even though I personally benefited from the feminist movement in the 60s (and my daughters certainly did)not everything turned out so great; but, as far as I can tell, there's no real acknowledgement that in casting men as the enemy, children as an albatross around your neck and the tedium of housework as unoffical slavery we unintentionally swapped for a high divorce rate, daycare for babies at six weeks and the frantic treadmill of housework and a 40 hour a week job. Not everyone of course but enough to give us pause. I don't have an answer to this---I just know the reality of daily life is imperfect, requires actual effort on our part to have a good life and no ideology will save us from this fact.
I have something I'd like to ask you, Dr Berman. Who do you think (living or dead) has successfully answered the question "what is a good life?" by the example of their life?

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Tiago said...

I find some "cognitive dissonance" in your post:
1) You say that scientific conferences (from feminism from computer science) follow some "holy gospel", groupthink thingy

2) You take the current scientific consensus in areas where science is not really "hard-science" as the holy gospel yourself (in the sense that you accept with no discussion global warming, peak oil, resource exhaustion, ...)

Note that I am not disagreeing (or agreeing) with the scientific consensus, just noting what to me is a (logic) flaw in your argument.

OK, it is a psycho-logic argument ;) .

Tiago
PS - being a scientist myself (having worked in more than one area) I fully agree with your observation about the behaviour in scientific conferences

3:40 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Well, some gd stuff here, as usual. I guess I'd take Jimmy Carter as such a person; another is Gary Snyder (see the nice profile of him in the New Yorker a few mos. ago), I suppose. I mean, there are at least a few we might mention: Spinoza; my maternal grandfather; Paul Newman; etc etc.

Tiago, I'm puzzled as to where you got the idea that I take things such as global warming as 'holy gospel'; did I ever *say* that? In fact, on that particular score, I've very much admired the dissonant writings of Freeman Dyson (see articles in the NYT Rev of Bks over past year), for example. I do think peak oil and resource exhaustion are going to be upon us within the next few decades; but I'm not a prophet--this is just an educated guess, based on the work of some (very) educated scientists. Future facts are not 'facts' in the same sense as the rate of acceleration of falling bodies, but there are more likely and less likely trajectories, I'm thinking. One can be convinced of something without fetishizing it, n'est-ce pas?

mb

8:20 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Dr. Berman,

You got my attention with your comment about shamanism and magic. Without going into the endless discussion of what "shamanism" is, (there is no agreement as to the meaning of the term), I can suggest, after nearly 30 years of study, practice and teaching at least one form of shamanism, that the unfortunate human tendency to embrace the latest "ism" is not necessarily the only next step.

Our residence in and awareness of only the explicate order and a practice that attempts to acquaint us with a continuing experience of the implicate, is it seems to me, a huge departure from what you see as the hula hoop syndrome.

I'm not ready to try to explain Bohm and Pribram (can anyone?) but I have experienced enough intentional altered states (shamanism?) to satisfy myself that consensual reality is grossly simplistic. Once one has merged with nature (the meaning of that phrase is another discussion) and had a brief glimpse of underlying order, the "isms" are horribly silly and destructive. It takes hard work and something like the surrender advocated in the stupid "isms", so there is no hope, but I am not scornful of those who try to break out.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Dave,

Neither am I; tho I do think there is a tendency, with every such insight, to turn it into the next ism, the next system of hype. Or at least historically, this has happened a lot.

David Bohm is a different matter. I knew him personally, and we corresponded on topics like this for over a year (I still have those letters stashed in my files somewhere). His later years were not very happy ones. He was depressed a lot, probably because of always being "shy of the mark," whether in physics or philosophy; marginalized, in a word. And yet I wonder as to the fate of the implicate order had he been successful. There wouldn't be much to prevent it from becoming the next buzzword, complete with T-shirts and coffee mugs, I suspect. I'm reminded of Wittgenstein, the iconoclast of all isms, being imitated by Cambridge students in terms of dress and language. At the end of his life, he commented that his legacy might not be anything more than providing people with a new jargon. No wonder he found silence so attractive!

Thanks for writing-
mb

7:16 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

As always, plenty of food for thought here!

The search for The Way ... yes, I did a fair amount of that as a younger man myself, ever so earnest & consciously humble about my Quest (and of course it was capitalized). But it took me a long time to recognize the hunger for superiority beneath that professed humility; and a little longer still to recognize the raw, naked fear beneath that hunger.

That's it, isn't it? We're so afraid to admit that we're so afraid. And we'll cling to anything that promises to take the fear away, and grant us the security & serenity we so desperately crave.

I see it all around me at work, from fundamentalists of every religious & ideological stripe, to frantically happy followers of the latest New Age placebo. There must be something, SOMETHING, that provides all the necessary answers -- right?

What frightens me now is realizing that as things continue to collapse, those adhering to any One True Way will only increase their efforts to impose it on everyone else, in a hopeless effort to eliminate any suggestion that they might be worshipping a golden illusion with their own faces. How easily & eagerly we kill others to avoid looking at ourselves!

So what do we do?

I've found that lately I buy & pass on a lot of used books from library sales -- many of which are purging their shelves of anything more than a few years old. A few younger friends have thanked me for introducing them to authors they didn't know about, and suggesting that the classics might have something worthwhile for them. It's a small thing, really, but who knows what might be saved for another generation or two if enough people do the same?

8:34 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Tim,

Of course, I share your concern--and your analysis.

Yes, might as well do what we can; you never know what a single act can lead to. (Check out my chapter on 'new monasticism' in "The Twilight of American Culture".) Finally, when structural solutions are no longer available, all we can offer is ourselves.

Thanks for writing-

mb

8:49 AM  
Blogger Wendy Koenigsmann said...

I think that people who switch from one "ism" to the next will just have to live with the consequences and make up their own minds. My quests for "truth" (yeah, that sound stupid I know) have been genuine, but I do know many people who convert from one thing to the next but still live the same lives -- they remain essentially unchanged spiritually. That I find very strange.

Re: your book Dark Ages America, I totally agree Americans emphasise individualism too much, but at the same time there is this perverse "social clique" thing that pervades. That's probably a reason why people can't dig deeper -- you won't have a nation of great thinkers who are totally self-indulgent, yet individualistic (in a warped sense), but at the same time still want to be a part of the popularity club. To me, that spells disaster. Maybe that is why people keep going from one "ism" to another, to feed their odd combination of pseudo-individuality while going along with something that other people find "trendy" at the moment. It's as if they have to pretend to be smart/sophisticated but also be socially accepted.

2:23 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

"Like the Dark Ages and the Inquisition that preceded the Renaissance, or the period of global slavery that preceded the Enlightenment, humanity has still a chance to face the coming era of ecological devastation, pandemics, and natural catastrophes and respond in a way other than chaos and rule by war lords in collapsed states. Like the Dark Age monks who miniaturized classical civilization and made it a curricular content inside medieval civilization, whatever culture that can miniaturize scientific civilization and place it within a new formation of a post-religious spirituality of fellowship and not followership will carry us across the great rift into a new stage of cultural evolution. If we fail, then the dark age interval will be much longer." -William Irwin Thompson (2006)

Prof. Berman- did you know W.I.T. at Cornell? (I think you were both there at the same time) What do you think about his idea of an emerging "planetary culture"- a possible future or just another "false dawn"?

Stay safe and healthy.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Art,

I didn't know Thompson at Cornell, but met him years later on the New Age lecture circuit. My feeling about "planetary culture" is that it is not so much a false dawn as a New Age illusion. But as they say, that's just me!

mb

10:49 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Friends-

Just a short note. Once again, I have to ask that your letters be no more than 2-3 paragraphs. I've been getting ones that go on for pages; obviously, I can't post them. In fact, I don't even read them. So please: take it as your slogan that brevity is the soul of true communication (at least in the context of a blog).

Thank you!

mb

1:49 AM  
Blogger Mark Notzon said...

I read this essay and its posted responses a couple of days after having a conversation with a friend about a religious group calling themselves the "House of David" who had established themselves here in southwestern Michigan in the early part of the
Twentieth Century. They enjoyed a brief efflorescence, and had, according to the record, produced remarkable jams and jellies, the public sale of which had financed their community. The group expired in scandal, perhaps predictably--the way of all flesh that attempts to sanitize itself too much.

In the course of our conversation I recalled the Oxford Jesuit Ronald Knox's magisterial work "Entushiasm" in which he remarks that the United States is the refuge of "enthusiasm" par excellence. This term has such a postive connotation in North American culture that it is a revelation (speaking of religion) to find that originally the term referred to an unbalanced state of mind in which an idea or belief so absorbs the personality that all proportion is lost, and one's belief is the lever and fulcurm through which one thinks one can move the world. This has become the measure of "commitment" and "motivation" in North American society--a sort of self-validating (after all what else is there?) adrenalin high.



Pirandello had entitled one of his plays "Right You Are, If You Think You Are." The North American variant might be "Right You Are, If Enthused You Are."

Inspiration is qualitatively something else, but that requires discernment, another "vanishing species."

10:44 AM  
Blogger Ashley C. said...

Mr. Berman,

Thank you for writing this. At 23, I am just beginning my intellectual life, and am beginning to think that this piece you have written will play an important role in the way I think throughout my lifetime.

in gratitude,

Ashley

9:11 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Ashley,

Glad to help launch your intellectual career. I think you'll find that the material that is the most helpful to you is that which moves against the grain of what is normally accepted and agreed upon. In that vein, let me suggest a play by Wallace Shawn, "The Designated Mourner," which will keep you thinking for weeks. Shawn is one of America's hidden treasures, imo.

Thank you for writing, and much luck to you-

mb

12:08 PM  
Blogger Brian M. said...

I have such mixed reactions to your book & posts... It's obvious that you are not to be firmly pidgeon-holed to either extreme of left or right, you cite bad examples of both, but your left buttock is probably a tad more calloused from use. I really don't care either way - humans are imperfect. Extremes of any sort are unhealthy. I liked and agree with your analysis of the repeal of Bretton Woods, and I think it's too bad that history will probably have to repeat itself again before another opening for such sanity will exist. Humans are after all, universally greedy.

11:58 PM  

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