Somehow, the rebels of half a century ago have grown up to become the new Victorians. There’s a right way now to eat, vote, laugh, think.
Which means it really shouldn’t be that difficult to make an avant-garde. Here are some of the pieties that it might undertake to profane. That people are basically good. That freedom is the chief ingredient of happiness. That we control our fates. That society is slowly getting better. That we are more virtuous than those who came before us. That the universe coheres in a mystical whole. That it all works out in the end. In short, the whole gospel of self-improvement, progressive politics, ethical hygiene, and pantheistic spirituality. The upper middle brow is as committed to the happy ending as is Hollywood. Tragedy is inadmissible: the recognition that loss is loss and cannot be recuperated, that most people’s lives end in failure and emptiness, that the world is never going to be a happy place, that the universe doesn’t love us.
W.H. Auden described Freud as “no more a person/now but a whole climate of opinion/under whom we conduct our differing lives.” I thought of that while reading Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, where he related Frederick Crews’s summary of one of Freud’s most famous case studies:
Freud was determined to find a primal scene to serve as the fountainhead of Pankeev’s symptoms. He made it materialize through a transparently arbitrary interpretation of a remembered dream of Pankeev’s from the suspiciously early age of four, about six or seven white wolves (actually dogs, as Freud was later compelled to admit) sitting in a tree outside his window. The wolves, Freud explained, were the parents; their whiteness meant bedclothes; their stillness meant the opposite, coital motion; their big tails signified, by the same indulgent logic, castration; daylight meant night; and all this could be traced most assuredly to a memory from age one of Pankeev’s mother and father copulating, doggy style, no fewer than three times in succession while he watched from the crib and soiled himself in horrified protest.
It seems absurdly ludicrous in hindsight, but that’s the thing — how likely is it that we don’t have shared cultural delusions that will be looked back upon in another century with similarly incredulous humor? Which scientific and aesthetic ideas do our cognoscenti see as obvious to the point of being unremarkable? What sorts of things do educated, intelligent people take completely for granted and reinforce among each other?
February 12, 2013 @ 2:26 pm
What sorts of things do educated, intelligent people take completely for granted and reinforce among each other?
That the universe doesn't love us.
February 12, 2013 @ 3:44 pm
I'm neither educated nor intelligent, but while I would agree that the existentialist vision of human intelligence being isolated in a void of nihilistic insignificance could stand to be modified, I think that it's likewise meaningless to talk about the universe "loving" us in any coherent sense of the term. Plus, I think that's more of a perennial argument. I'm thinking more along the lines of, is there anything peculiarly early-21st-century the way Freudianism was such a product of its time?
Freud thought of himself as carrying the torch of Enlightenment science and rationality, but it seems so obvious in hindsight he was fitting the "facts" around his theory. Yet somehow that wasn't apparent to most of the intelligentsia at the time. The closest parallel I can imagine is if we were to realize that we had been missing something obvious all this time with regards to our theories about climate change. I'm not saying that will happen, just that I think the belief occupies a similar space in our intellectual culture, perhaps.
February 12, 2013 @ 9:40 pm
The mythology that "Climate Action Plans" prepared by consulting firms and well meaning upper middle class people installing solar panels and driving a Prius will do a single thing to slow or reverse catastrophic global "climate change" seems an even bigger conceit of the modern era. But then, I have no children, am middle aged, and gloomy of temperament.
February 13, 2013 @ 1:52 am
That's because of all that Scandinavian melancholy you absorb through your ears. Try some indie-folk, and you'll come around to that way of thinking.
February 13, 2013 @ 2:33 pm
I was just yanking your chain, but I think you're looking for something that we accept or dismiss with as much certainty as your response to the universe having feelings for us. It's a thought provoking question.
February 13, 2013 @ 3:49 pm
Plus, the psychadelic folk rock from North Carolina on the iPod this morning is as gloomy as anything from January in Finland.
(U.S. Christmas…Run Thick in the Night…amazing album!)
February 13, 2013 @ 4:45 pm
February 13, 2013 @ 3:32 pm
Yeah, there is, of course, no reason to assume that there would be a direct correlation with our own day and age. Maybe it really was a unique delusion due to the very specific context of that point in history. But it's fun to try to imagine such a correlation.
February 13, 2013 @ 3:47 pm
LOL Damian. Maybe it's too much time listening to culture war debates about whether a speaker apologized enough? That's far more gloom-instilling than listening to bands with risible song titles like "Figures of Chained Spirits" and "The First Witnesses of Lucifer"
February 18, 2013 @ 3:02 pm
I can relate what you're asking to the reason physicists don't trust the social sciences: there is often more conjecture than fact in their results. What is usually overlooked? The fact that even educated humans are animals who seek pleasure and avoid pain in selfish, short-sighted ways.
Here are my "WTF were they thinking?" issues from the future:
1. Thomas Malthus is an object of scorn while overpopulation causes or exacerbates all our major problems (except the need for cheap labor!), condemning billions to a grim future.
2. Antibiotics make our lives 1000% more secure, but we give them to livestock and to humans unnecessarily and in such quantities that we guarantee that they will become useless.
3. Our indulgences, entertainments, wastefulness and inefficiencies amount to fiddling while Rome burns. Why don't we teach kids to live less wastefully?
February 18, 2013 @ 10:07 pm
2 and 3 make me think of the difference between ad hoc solutions and top-down planning. I think that probably happens a lot — people come up with solutions to immediate problems, which lead to different problems later on, and eventually, someone takes a big-picture view and decides that a more comprehensive solution is needed. Too often, wisdom reveals itself only in hindsight.
July 16, 2013 @ 7:45 pm
This is cool!