July 20, 2013

The Existential Strain

Dear Wafers:

I continue to receive attacks from Autonomous, and have become fascinated by his bile, his bitterness towards me. What, exactly, did I do to the poor guy? Essentially, I asked him to take a leap to a larger life—which is exactly the spiritual meaning of the poem I recommended he study, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” by John Keats. Here it is (George Chapman, by the way, 1559-1634, was a classical scholar and famous translator of Homer):

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

(It was Balboa, by the way, not Cortez, who discovered the Pacific, but no matter.)

What is this “wild surmise,” except the realization that you have entered a new realm, and that your life is changed forever as a result? (“a new planet swims into his ken…”)

This is what George Steiner, in In Bluebeard’s Castle, called an existential strain (not his exact words, but…): a demand on an individual so great that it is terrifying, because he knows he cannot meet the challenge, and thus will remain a diminished person. Steiner’s argument was that starting with Christ, the Jews repeatedly issued these existential challenges to the Christian world, challenges they simply couldn’t live up to, but felt they should (e.g., Christ’s injunction to love your enemies—keep in mind that the guy was Jewish). Over the centuries, says Steiner, enormous resentment built up toward the Jews on the part of Christian Europe, which suffered from the existential strain of their inadequacy. The result was the wanton, wholesale murder of the Jews during World War II—a revenge killing, in other words.

It’s an interesting thesis, and I don’t know if it’s true (how would one prove it, for one thing?). Nor am I calling Autonomous a Nazi; of course not. But I think Steiner may be onto something, and I think it may be relevant to the existential strain I inadvertently imposed on Autonomous, and his subsequent need for revenge. He probably is not capable of reading and understanding Keats; he is probably also aware that online ‘learning’ is totally inadequate for the study of such a subject; he feels he should know about such things, be the type of person who does; and the consequent rage at his own impotence had to find a target—namely, the person who issued the challenge. I never expected he would take me up on it, of course (i.e., read Keats), but I assumed that would be because of his obvious stubbornness. But it seems it went deeper than that, and his virulent response is the result.

Of course, the problem is not that of one particular unhappy individual; it is, rather, that he represents so much of America—most Americans, I suspect. How resentful Americans are about their lives; how desperate they are for scapegoats, targets for their hatred. Who can they blame? There are limits to blaming corporations and Wall Street, because Americans themselves, as I’ve stated repeatedly, are complicit in the values promoted by the latter. And so they are haunted by their own betrayal. Here’s a real vignette, the product of a conversation I had with a dean of humanities at a major East Coast university a couple of years ago; I’ll call him Dean Guide. He was telling me of a former student of his (when Guide was a faculty member), whom I’ll call Toys, who came to see him twenty years later. Toys had been a rather poor student, not terribly interested in the humanities; he may have even dropped out of college, never have gotten his degree (I forget the details). But he went into business, where he was very successful, and as a result made piles of money, which he enjoyed spending on electronic gadgets. He invited Dean Guide over to his house for coffee, to “catch up on old times”; but the real purpose—or so Guide believed—was to prove to him (Guide) that he (Toys) had made good in the world, despite his failure to understand what Guide had tried to teach him—things he regarded as meaningless at the time. Toys paraded all his toys: stereo system, plasma TV, computers and their various functions, half a dozen cell phones, and so on. Guide was very polite, just nodding, or saying, “Very nice,” or something to that effect. Then the two of them sat down on opposite couches, Toys poured out coffee for both of them, and a pained and embarrassed look came over his face. “What gives you meaning?,” he asked his old teacher. Toys was literally squirming in his seat.

Guide told me he was taken aback. The obvious discomfort that Toys revealed was that he knew, on some level, that all of these toys were shit; that in any ultimate existential sense, they didn’t amount to anything. Guide didn’t know what to say, and I can’t recall what he did say. What gave him meaning, of course, was teaching young people about values that they might use to guide their lives; or now, as a dean of humanities, running a department in which the faculty members were committed to the same agenda. I don’t think he said that, however, precisely because of the issue of existential strain. What could he say to Toys, really? Your life is a mistake? These toys are worthless, they have nothing to do with what’s really important? As I said, I don’t recall what he said to Toys, but to me he said something along the lines of, “There are no shortcuts. Either you are living a life that is real, that is courageous, that is existentially valid, or you aren’t. Toys was suffering because he understood that he had made the wrong choice.” Once again, this is a true story; this exchange actually occurred.

I think there is something crucially important here, not merely to understanding Toys, or Autonomous—whose own situations are neither here nor there, really—but America in general. Why America Failed describes a hustling culture in which the nation repeatedly rejected the possibility of the “other path,” whether it was offered by Emerson or Thoreau or Mumford or Jimmy Carter, and opted instead for what Sartre referred to as “bad faith” (mauvaise foi): the phenomenon whereby a human being under pressure from societal forces adopts false values and disowns his/her innate freedom to act, to live an authentic life. (What Tolstoy’s Ivan Illych realized too late, just before he died.) The American Dream was a siren song, and now that it has run aground on the rocks, Americans are left with nothing, because they thought what Emerson et al. were saying was just a lot of soft-headed rot. Toys, to his credit, was not bitter; he was just hurting and confused, in need of guidance. Maybe there’s hope for him after all (I suppose I should check back with Dean Guide as to how things turned out). But the case of Autonomous is, I suspect, much more typical, the path (again, pardon the hyperbole) of revenge of Christian Europe against the Jews: lash out in your existential guilt, your hatred and impotence.

If you ask me what can be done about America, about this psychological configuration, you of course already know my answer: nothing. There is no remedy; this is as obvious as horns on a bull. I write this not to ‘rectify’ the situation, but merely to illuminate another aspect of our national suicide, one that I have thus far not seen in print. Of course, for a whole host of reasons, I’m not expecting any great public discussion to follow in the wake of this essay; that would be a miracle all its own. But I think it’s worth putting the argument out there, if only for the tiny handful of people who might want to think about it. Long ago, Americans bet on the wrong horse, and they are now unable to change horses in midstream. This existential failure, it seems to me, is a crucial piece of the puzzle as to why we are now in a state of widespread collapse. We stare down from a peak in Darien, and on some level we really do understand it: we blew it; there is no place to go.

©Morris Berman, 2013


Greetings Wafers and Waferettes!

We seem to be filling up our allotted space of 200 comments with unusual speed these days. I blink, and it's time for another post. Let me take this opportunity to give you all an un-progress report regarding various books of mine (I'm guessing some of you could use a cure for insomnia; this will definitely do the trick).

1. Counting Blessings is back on the Amazon listing, but apparently they won't order from the publisher till the book is actually out of stock, and then they will only accept 2 or 3 copies at a time. Terrific way to handle things, eh? Last time this happened, the book was out of print for several weeks--an author's dream.

2. Spinning Straw Into Gold is endlessly on the verge of being published. Unfortunately, every time this occurs, there's another printer's error (last one: an entire page in a differently shaded font; take me now, O Lord), and so we have to do another round of proof copies, which takes a couple of weeks. Again, an author's dream. I'm beginning to wonder if the book will appear before Xmas.

3. Distributor for Coming to Our Senses is trying to get a re-release of the book posted on Amazon. This has been going on for several weeks now, with no end in sight.

4. No luck so far in getting Why America Failed published in a paperback edition. Replies usually say something along the lines of, "This doesn't fit into our current booklist," etc. Which could be true, although my guess is that it's code for "We can't make any money on this book." Thus proving the thesis of the book; a wonderful irony.

My mother told me to be a plumber, but did I listen? No! Anyway, maybe we'll have another buffoon attack on the blog, to keep things lively. As you know, I love those buffoons. Long may they rave, o'er the land of the free, etc. Buffoons rule!--don't doubt it for a minute. For every one of you, there are at least 100,000 of them.

O&D, amigos...mb