Saturday, November 9, 2013

800 Words: Living In The Past Part III - The Sublime Pleasures of Degeneration

“One epoch of history is unmistakably in its decline, and another is announcing its approach. There is a sound of rending in every tradition, and it is as though the morrow would not link itself with to-day. Things as they are totter and plunge, and they are suffered to reel and fall, because man is weary, and there is no faith that it is worth the effort to uphold them. Views that have hitherto governed minds are dead or driven hence like disenthroned kings, and for their inheritance they that hold the titles and they that would usurp are locked in struggle. Meanwhile interregnum in all its terrors prevails; there is confusion among the powers that be; the million, robbed of its leaders, knows not where to turn; the strong work their will; false prophets arise, and dominion is divided among those whose rod is the heavier because their time is short. Men look with longing for whatever new things are at hand, without presage whence they will come and what they will be. They have hope that in the chaos of thought, art may yield revelations on the order that is to follow on this tangled web. The poet, the musician, is to announce, or divine, or at least suggest in what forms civilization will further be evolved. What shall be considered good to-morrow--what shall be beautiful? What shall we know tomorrow--what shall we believe in? What shall inspire us? How shall we enjoy? So rings the question from thousands of voices of the people, and where a market-vendor sets up his booth and claims to give an answer, where a fool or a knave begins to prophesy in verse or prose, in sound or colour, or professes to practise his art otherwise than his predecessors or competitors, there gathers a great concourse, crowding around him to seek in what he has wrought, as in oracles of the Pythia, some meaning to be divined or interpreted. And the more vague they are, the more they seem to convey of the future to the poor gaping souls grasping for revelations, and the more greedily and passionately are they expounded.”

Max Nordau - Degeneration

Degeneration is a very bad book, but it is an absolutely fascinating bad book - a book written by a 19th century psychologist/pseudo-philosopher who clearly suffered from the degeneracy he accused his subjects of displaying, and like many second-rate German thinkers of his time (including Nietzsche...) obsessed by the horrors of modern moral permissiveness - not least of which was a contempt for modern democracy... - stumbles into a truth by the very incompetence of his methods which the more rigorous minds of his generation could never have seen. The book dabbles in long-since discredited pseudo-science like theosophy and phrenology, and yet it's through the backwardness of its methods that it creates a theory of civilization’s decline that is absolutely correct, even if one-sidedly so.

“Degeneration” itself is an extremely loaded, dangerous, term. The recent re-discovery of 1500 works of art banned by the Nazis for being ‘degenerate’ should be enough to warn us about the dangers of using this term lightly, and warn us of what’s coming if we focus too much on the degeneration itself rather than the far worse perniciousness of its remedies. But when a society is deeply ill, it is much like a person. Just as the antibodies will inevitably kill cells and hamper other bodily functions, the remedies to societal degeneration will inevitably kill people. The people who would seek to cure degeneration itself, cure it by revolution rather than heal it by reform, are the most degenerate people of all, and must be viewed like medieval doctors who use bloodletting and unsterilized instruments to cure illness. Just as medicine has advanced to the point that life can be prolonged, we have to have faith that the day is coming when the world will be rid of medieval concepts like revolution and war; and politics, like science, will be a matter of incremental reforms through data and empirical research to obtain a ‘true’ and verifiable conception of the best possible government. The “right to be degenerate”, however corrosive it seems, is inviolate, and inevitably must be defended from those who would repress it. As Nordau’s intellectual successors proved, there is no person more dangerous to the world than the movement who would seek to cure degeneration.

But degeneration, as disgustingly as the term is generally used, most definitely does exist. It is the state when the vast majority of the public becomes unhealthily obsessed by certain components of the world’s culture at the exclusion of the culture’s other parts. When a cultural world grows so large that its ever-increasing complexity assaults people’s brains, people retreat into simplistic explanations for why the world they live in is the way it is - and they become fixated on small parts of the culture, endowing these small components with a significance they absolutely do not deserve. The assault on people’s brains by cultural stimuli becomes so unremitting that our overstimulated brains demand constant stimulation in order to be engaged at all, and this demand can only be gratified by obsessions, obsessions which by their very simplicity obscure truth rather than clarify it.

In its ideal state, the human brain aspires to clarity, and has no need for vague obfuscating terms like spirit or humanity or sexuality or the id. In an optimal situation, an ‘innocent’ situation, it would not even occur to a brain to require more than the pleasure of formal perfection. It would derive its pleasure from purely rational pursuits, like the solving of a mathematical equation or the construction of a home appliance (or perhaps a Raphael painting or a Bach fugue). But since we live in a world of messy human longings and ‘ugly’ human needs, the brain constantly strives for greater, more amorphous connections. If there are ‘groupthink’ solutions to these messy human problems which are generally accepted by the clique to which a person belongs, the person’s brain needn't seek its own solutions, and can therefore stay that much more at rest and think that much more clearly about other matters (after all, ‘groupthink’ is occasionally a good thing. To give the most obvious example, it’s how children are socialized into the world.).

But in order for the human brain to feel at peace with itself, it requires clarity at all times, and often requires clarity from situations that are completely irrational. Even in an irrational situation, the human brain must make sense of it. Human matters are far more nuanced and complex than even the most specialized mathematical fields, and the way we solve human problems is through metaphor. Metaphor is the algebra of the soul, the humanistic equivalent to mathematics, in which we try, however imperfectly, to create equations from situations which appear at first glance to have nothing in common. Within our lives, we have situations which challenge us, and the best we can do to solve them is by comparing this situation to preceding ones. We compare and contrast them, and work out just how like or unlike every new problem in our lives is to old ones. Just as in higher-level mathematics, we can perceive connections between things which seem completely disparate. In the brains of people who maintain their clarity even in the face of human frustration, human motives can be explicated as clearly as any mathematical proof.

But most of us are extremely muddled thinkers. Most of us never learn how to solve higher-level mathematics, let alone our dealings with other people. Our metaphors are inexact, and our reasoning nearly as approximate as if we chose our actions at random. We are confused by the world; we’re neither the creatures of reason and light which Rousseau and Kant would have us believe, nor are we the creatures of darkness and irrationality from the fevered imaginings of Schopenhauer and Freud. We are creatures who try to act rationally as best we can, and usually fail. Our brains attempt to perceive the world in all its complexity, but our perceptions continually let us down because no one person can take in the largeness of the world, though perhaps we all can try a little harder...

And in place of a complexity we can’t understand, we simplify our lives so that we can make sense of them. In an era like the 1950’s when so many people shared the same worldview, the simplification of life is all-too-simple, because who could possibly want to harm another person in whom you see so much of yourself? It is easy to be a tolerant liberal reasonably open to new cultural experiences when you know that everybody else wants the same goals out of life which you do, shares your worldview, your values, and your frame of reference. But the stability of such a world makes the world a duller place. It requires visionaries of true genius to force the world to open itself up to a different way of seeing.

The ‘great geniuses’ who grew up in such eras, geniuses like Dylan and Spielberg and George Carlin and Matt Groening and Francis Collins and Barack Obama (and pre-boomers like Orson Welles, James Watson, Louis Armstrong, Franklin Roosevelt, Mark Twain etc…), are that much greater than the great geniuses after them, because the geniuses of this older generation had to rise up from the homogeneity of their upbringings to claim their individuality in a milieu where individuality was intensely discouraged. And in doing so, they taught their followers to be themselves. Thanks to the preceding geniuses, people of genius and talent who follow in their footsteps are already liberated. Nothing in the history of the America we know today which follows in the particular genres of The Times They Are A-Changin’, or ET, or Seven Dirty Words, or Bart the Daredevil, or the mapping of the Human Genome, or the passing of the Affordable Care Act, could possibly have the same apocalyptically elemental power on the larger public, or on history, as the originals did. The work of opening people’s minds to new horizons has already been done. Just as these works redefined America, if a new genius emerges who is on their level, that person would completely change the curvature of American history as much as these other figures have. Music as we understand it would no longer be music, science as we've known it would no longer be science, movies not movies, politics not politics.

But there is an inevitable price for such greatness. Once these horizons have been opened, there is no ignoring them, no turning back the clock, no unseeing what has already been seen. There will always be people resistant to such changes, and they will believe with all their might that these changes must be resisted by any and all means. There will also be people so eager to look forward that they will view all these new discoveries uncritically, and refuse to acknowledge that progress has equal potential for bad as well as good; and in order to affect the change they want, they will attempt to destroy all connections with the past both beneficial and destructive. In every historical epoch, both sides of the argument become obsessed by these changes and would do anything within their power to return the world to the conformity which they view as inevitable so long as the world conforms to their particular worldview. 

The tragedy is, both sides are absolutely right. If humanity were simple enough to ever conform to a total worldview, then humans might be completely happy within one weltanschauung or the other, and it wouldn't matter which. Instead, all these monist ideologues rage against developments which conflict with their view of the world, and can't understand why their glorious vision of the world never comes to be. And as new explanations for why the new world never materialized proliferate, each side bifurcates again and again by infighting, and while discussions about the world used to take place in which everyone fundamentally agrees and only argues over particulars, perceptions of the nature of the world run the entire gamut with every conceivable point of view taken. Everybody becomes unique, just like everybody else, and nobody understands how anybody else could believe what they believe. 

And as this process grows exponentially more volatile, people retreat further and further into like-minded communities, the chasms between them and the ‘other’ growing ever greater, with gulfs of understanding that eventually can never be surmounted. This is the story of history, and in every culture and civilization, it becomes only a matter of time before each group perceives the ‘other’ as a threat which must be eliminated at all costs, by any means, with total war until the enemy is eliminated totally. Within a culture in decline, each person becomes his own feedback loop of self-generated obsession, unavoidable and tragic with consequences that are all too foreseeable.

Some people become obsessed by religion, others by sin. Some are obsessed by mysticism, others by rationality. Some are obsessed by violence, others by pacifism. Some are obsessed by anti-intellectualism, others by intellectual obscurantism. Some people become obsessed with extremist politics of the right, others by extremism of the left (give it twenty years…). Some are obsessed by futuristic science fiction, others by fantasy literature which recreates the past. A fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject, but when people become obsessed with their subject, the maintenance of this obsession endows the brain with all the stimulation it needs to maintain the stimulation with which this incomprehensible world initially endowed them.

What Nordau states as polemic, I submit as inevitable. As a culture degenerates, it grows ever more unstable, unmanageable, insane. But stability is boring, and the great works which stability brings about inevitably shake us out of the very stability which the unstable world which preceded them worked so hard to build. And as we wrestle with the idea of making the world better - more sensible, more manageable - the messy nuances of human nature get in the way to such an extent that in the long run, we can’t help but fail. The world does not become, the world is. We cannot improve the world, but we can temporarily heal it.

And as the world grows more insane, so too do the consolations which make the world a finer place to live. We already have the achievements of past generations to improve our lives’ lots, but we can also build upon them to create a still greater world. We know fully well that with every step we take to create what we perceive as an improvement to the edifice of civilization, there will be many who bristle at our every effort, and do everything they can to resist and destroy it. Such is the lot of a world grown too interesting, and eventually, the contradictions will become so great that there is no way to stem destruction’s tide. Our world, and everything we know about it, will eventually collapse, and the finer our world grows, the more inevitable such a collapse will be.

The closer we get to the ‘fall’, the higher we reach to the cultural mountain’s summit. The more energy and stimulation is gained, and the more splendid culture becomes. The more diseased a civilization becomes, the more it bifurcates into different cliques governed by different obsessions; each of which takes on a different response to the world’s spiritual disease, and each of which requires all manner of diversions to distract each obsessive from his particular sickness. Just before the "fall" of World War I, the world produced splendid riches from its many, many niches, and even if there was not a Beethoven or a Shakespeare or a Michelangelo (or a Spielberg) among their creators, there were hundreds upon hundreds of ‘lesser geniuses’ who sprayed a rain of beauty upon this earth unequaled before or since. As we draw closer and closer to next fall, we will see ever more and more of that beauty. In movies, there may be no equivalent in the younger generation to giants like Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, or Lucas, but there are hundreds of filmmakers from the next few generations which are candidates for greatness - from Spike Lee to Richard Linklater to Jason Reitman to Alexander Payne to Sofia Coppola (to say nothing of other American directors I don’t much like but others love…), and even if the world of television will never inspire the world like movies, it’s a golden period so amazing as to defy quantification. 

Even if there’s barely a “giant” among the younger generations of musicians the way there are so many in the older who monolithically inflamed the entirety of the music world - like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Johnny Cash or Otis Redding or Stevie Wonder… make your own list (to say nothing of pop giants…)  - among the next generation, we’ve had hip-hop artists over the last quarter-century who've inflamed an extraordinary chunk of the world population - Public Enemy, De La Soul, L.L. Cool J, Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, Tupac, Dr. Dre, Jurassic 5, Eminem, R Kelly, Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Missy Eliot, Beyonce, Outkast, Little Brother, 50 Cent, Gnarls Barkley, MIA, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Frank Ocean - and even if hip-hop is a 2-year project to learn which I haven’t even begun, I can’t help but be impressed by its popularity, and by how seriously people take it. And even among more old-school style rockers of various types, the comparative little leaguers among the younger generations - musicians like James McMurtry, Sufjan Stevens, Regina Spektor, Charles Bradley (a late bloomer), The Mountain Goats, Gogol Bordello, Arcade Fire, Neko Case, (among many others…many of whom aren’t mentioned because I don’t like them…) - create songs with quality enough that it’s possible that people will still see value in some of this after another century, and we underestimate their potential claim on posterity at our own peril. 

Even if there are no young scientists yet whose discoveries seem to have inspired the intellectual world’s attention the way Francis Collins and Craig Venter have, or Watson and Crick, or Brian Greene and Ed Witten, or Noam Chomsky, or Persi Diaconis, or Steven Chu, or James Hansen, there are thousands of scientists whose work creates new reality out of their research every day, and no doubt, there will be a new generation of great American scientists soon enough. 

And even if Barack Obama is the final great president in US history, the tide is most definitely turning toward liberalism in the next generation. Whether or not the gains are incremental or stupefyingly large, they will have been made possible by Barack Obama’s patient educating the American public against a conservative campaign of ignorance and fear. We don’t know what the future brings, but the near future of America seems overwhelmingly liberal, and it is President Obama who made that possible. 

All this great talent is possible in one era. The more volatile America gets, the more creative it becomes - with amazing talent, amazing potential for talent, and amazing talent still unknown to us. Because as the world gets worse and worse, the need for culture gets more and more desperate. However unlikely, it’s possible that the current rain of American-founded beauty could continue for another hundred years without interruption. Just think of it, as America (hopefully) continues to slowly crumble, the American Carnival could snowball into a greater and greater party with all the terrible beauty of an avalanche. Long may it rain!

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