Saturday, March 7, 2015

Revolt against the Modern World

On a Sunday night in January, I rode through Queens to La Guardia Airport, looking out the car window at the skyline of Manhattan. I’ve looked at its huge buildings lit up at night for twenty-one years, but it struck me then that I’d never seen anything so monstrous, so immensely ugly, so impersonal and uninhabitable. I live in New York, and there’s usually nowhere that feels more like home to me. But on the highway, looking at my home city, I felt like a wanderer on the earth.

With that on my mind, I got on a Boeing 737, and wedged between two unsmiling strangers, flew to Chicago—another cyclopean city—where some more rivers of traffic roared under an orange sky.

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain,
and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.

As I ate breakfast the next Monday, I read a bizarre article in the New York Times. George Monbiot, a left-wing environmental activist, had written a pointed attack on the narrowness of industrialized life:
We arose in a thrilling, terrible world. The African savannas on which the first hominids evolved were dominated by saber-toothed and false saber-toothed cats, giant hyenas and bear dogs. When human beings arrived in the Americas, 14,000 years ago, they found ground sloths the weight of elephants; a beaver eight feet from nose to tail; armadillos like small cars; giant lions and sabertooths; short-faced bears whose shocking armory of teeth and claws suggests they drove giant lions and saber-tooths off their prey. A bird in Argentina had a wingspan of 26 feet. Fanged salmon nine feet long migrated inland from the Pacific coast.
We carry with us the psychological equipment, rich in instinct and emotion, required to navigate that world. But our survival in the modern economy requires the use of few of the mental and physical capacities we possess. Sometimes it feels like a small and shuffling life. Our humdrum, humiliating lives leave us, I believe, ecologically bored. At times this sensation has overwhelmed me.
This article touched a nerve, but I haven’t been able to explain just why until now. Its basic point, which I’ve decided I agree with, is this:

Life in a city is lonely. We’re surrounded by human beings, but they’re all strangers. Especially in a metropolis like New York, there’s very little human warmth to be had on a walk down a busy street: no knowing winks, no nods of greeting, no enemies or friends. There’s a shortage of “third places”—neutral gathering spots where we can count on meeting our friends and family for warm, unplanned conversations. As a result, except insofar as we make a conscious effort to be around friendly people, our lives default to solitude, broken only by romantic partners and coworkers. This reserves a sense of tight community to those who either attend regular religious services or who have surpassingly good social skills.

Life in a city is also suffocating, what Monbiot calls “ecologically boring”. I’ve lived in Chicago for going on three years now, and I’ve never felt more hemmed in. There are no woods. The city is an enormous strip mall in its pleasantest parts. Carless, my only option for leaving Hyde Park is to hop on the CTA and ride a train for an hour and a half—to some other neighborhood of gridded streets, carefully planted trees, broken-glass-filled empty lots, and IHOPs. There are no stars.

We don’t know that there are no stars, though, because we spend all of our time inside. The forty-hour workweek keeps almost everyone in an office during the best parts of each day. We get up before the sun to ride the subway to work, where we fill out forms or take sandwich orders until the sun sets again. For almost all Americans, spending a week with the family is an extremely rare treat. And I don’t think I’ve met a single working college graduate who has any time to read for pleasure—or better yet, to spend a whole afternoon asleep with a book in his lap. All this for milk and rent. This state of affairs is so common that the ones who criticize it—Bertrand Russell, for instance—are treated as insane visionaries.

But imagine living a whole life in the woods and mountains, drinking from springs without a filter, learning the pattern of the stars as a catechism, shooting dinner and enemies with a wooden bow. Then there is not only freedom, in the sense of liberty to wander over a boundless land, but also clear, perceptible purpose—the love of your family, and communion with the waking sky and earth. This was the reality for the vast, vast majority of human history, and only stopped being so in the last few thousand years.

This picture is an obvious romantic fiction. But its purpose is not to persuade us that it’s better to be a hunter gatherer, at least not now that we’ve gotten used to the warm comfort of industrialization. It is meant to draw our attention to a lack of breathing-room and meaning in the temperature-controlled, wage-bound world that we do inhabit. As Monbiot recognizes in his article, this feeling of dissatisfaction dates back at least as far as the eighteenth century. (Actually longer, I’d say: Lucretius, writing in the first century B.C., hearkens back longingly to the freedom that humankind enjoyed before it built stone nests for itself.) What Monbiot does not mention, though, is that in the last few centuries it has been far more characteristic in its history of the Right than of the Left.

Now, our modern identification of the Right with conservatism is to some measure a result of our upbringing in an age and country where it’s been populated by polite segregationists and opponents of birth control. Above all, that is, by family-values Christians. But the true, noble, repulsive Right of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was fiercely, atheistically mystical; and far from Christian and conservative, it deemed Christianity another symbol of the modern world’s mediocrity. It did not want to preserve the power of polite society. In its longing for meaning, it was willing to sacrifice even politeness itself.

This revolt often took the form of paganism. The Norse gods were especially good for this purpose: with none of the classical calm of the Greek pantheon, they personified rage, doom, and passion. Woden, whose name comes from the Proto-Germanic word wōþ, or “rage”, was a particular inspiration. His wild berserkers—literally, wearers of the “bear-shirt”—were emblems of the cathartic madness that would save modernity from its increasingly gloomy malaise. Here is Heinrich Heine:
And should that subduing talisman, the Cross, break, then will come crashing and roaring forth the wild madness of the old champions, the insane Berserker rage, of which Northern poets say and sing. That talisman is brittle, and the day will come when it will pitifully break. The old stone gods will rise from a long forgotten ruin, and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and Thor, leaping to life with his giant hammer, will crush the Gothic cathedrals! —From Kant to Hegel
Wagner, meanwhile, wrote an opera about the old paganism—the Twilight of the Gods—which, by his own description, was meant to fill us with a sort of nihilist transcendence that makes our ordinary daylit lives seem colorless. Nietzche’s work is infused with the same sentiment: everything from the Birth of Tragedy to the Antichrist has a whiff of admiration for the old, strong gods, and a hatred of the sick pettiness of Christianity and post-Christianity. More sinister: Julius Evola, who helped Mussolini craft his racial laws, believed that humankind is living in the kali yuga, the spiritually dullest aeon in the cycle of the cosmos, and that only a heroic, radical return to a strict hierarchical society could save man from his degradation. Evola was an esotericist, who believed that the wisdom of tradition was always lurking among the true devotees of the gods, especially those of the Hindus. At the end of World War II, he was found walking through Vienna, casting spells to keep the advancing Soviets out of the city.

I, too, want to write a book of philosophy
with my head wreathed in flames on the cover.
And worst of all, there was Alfred Rosenberg, whose pan-Indo-European paganism was a main tributary of Nazi racial thought. Rosenberg thought that the Indo-European race, ennobled by the mysticism developed among the Indians, the Nordic peoples and the Persians, was the heir to an ancient and true religion. The Indo-Europeans had uncovered the secret to human flourishing, and were capable of seizing both godliness and happiness, if only they could break the heavy chains around their necks.  Judaism and Christianity, meanwhile, were poxes on the earth: they were responsible for all the dullness and alienation that had come to pervade Western societies. Rosenberg’s prose was as ecstatic as it was firm. In The Myth of the 20th Century, his magnum opus, he wrote in his conclusion: “This inner voice demands today that the Myth of blood and the Myth of the soul, of race, of me, of nation and personality, blood and honor; will alone—truly alone and uncompromising—pervade, carry, and control our entire life.” (Whichever Nazi owned my copy of the book before me underlined this sentence enthusiastically.)

Published in 1943 in Munich, and inscribed:
I keep this book on a very, very high shelf.
Why all this madness? Why were so many men and women swept up into such a fierce, fanatical hatred of the modern world, becoming almost childish in their destructive zeal? I think that they were reacting to the same thing that Monbiot saw when he wrote his article. It’s the same thing that Pete Seeger saw when he sang Little Boxes, and the same thing that Tolkien saw when he escaped to the world as it was before the elves went out to the West. It’s the unhappiness of the unenchanted world. When we industrialized, we took everything that was deep about our lives—our worship of the gods and fear of demons, our family rites, our sense of the terrible, our communal music, our hatred of winter and delight in the spring—and paved it all over with asphalt. In return we got central heating, three sure meals a day, and a tenfold increase in our population.

The ancient Romans found this just as alienating as the Germans, and their urban life was undergirded by countless secret mystery cults. Feasts of Bacchus abounded, which let a youth tie an ivy wreath around his wine-flushed temples and lose his soul to throbbing life, poured forth in its purest form. Catullus 63 tells the story of Attis, a Greek adolescent who enslaves himself to the foreign goddess Cybele, and finally castrates himself to show his devotion to her. The poem is utterly incomprehensible until we realize what Attis is reacting against. It’s a sickening feeling that the tame, bourgeois world—the “forum, the stadiums, the gym, and the baths”—can offer only pale shades in comparison to a man’s most brilliant visions. The mysteries of wine, ancient song, and total devotion to a goddess are Attis’ escape, even though they destroy him.

I may have already let on that despite the nausea that right-wing paganism causes me, I suffer just as much from the boredom with colorless modernity that inspires it. But let me say this: for reasons that are obvious but important enough to repeat, right-wing reaction is dangerous and evil. Not only because it brings Hell onto earth, as in the 1940s, but also because it is closely associated with frighteningly illliberal hierarchies. A society that angrily destroys modern propriety is likely to overthrow egalitarianism along with it, which is bad news if you’re a woman, or Jewish, or trans or black or Spanish-speaking or gay.

I do, though, think it’s possible to confess frustration with the pattern of our urban lives without succumbing to the mystical temptations of Fascism. Monbiot, a leftist, attests to that. For my own part, my means of coping with industrialized modernity are partial and paltry. 

One of them is music. Riding a bus across the especially gray and flat parts of Chicago, a surefire way out from suffocation is to pull out my iPod, and drift into the Song to the Breeze:

What a gentle breeze will blow tonight under the pines in the grove. (And the rest he’ll understand. Of course, of course he’ll understand.)

Morgan Freeman’s character, on this very duet:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
This is one of the best descriptions of classical music that I’ve ever come across, and the fact that it’s in a popular American movie has always struck me as a piece of serendipity. It hits on the most important thing that music can offer us: an opportunity to briefly wake up from the smoky dream of real life.

But when I’m in a mood that’s more bitter than wistful, I’ll skip Mozart and play Tristan und Isolde, and escape the stony labyrinth of the Regenstein library on Wagner’s wax wings. (To my humanist friends: Omnia possideat, non possidet arie Minos.)

My other solution, similar to Monbiot’s, and unfortunately unavailable in Chicago, is to escape into the mountains—if only to see the stars. Who knows what they have to say! To me they’re silent, and far from reflecting any ordering mind in the cosmos, they’re symbols of the immense chaos that really holds the baton. But perhaps because of that, they give me a way out of the narrowness of my daily imprisonment in the human city.

Liquor, meanwhile is perhaps the most common means of revolt against the modern world, especially for us students in college. The wild, dark, loud parties which I disdained as a first-year are the closest that men and women of my age come to throwing off the yoke of the world. Standards of propriety, of sexual restraint, of politeness, modesty, balance, good taste, and health are swept away like a wood fence in the path of a surging river. When college administrators warn first-years that drinking to excess is dangerous, imprudent, and (as a subtext) unvirtuous, they hit the point exactly. Dionysus offers precisely an escape from safety, prudence, and virtue. He shows young people a path from these padded fictions to a world that feels alive, colorful, and warm.

But all of these experiences are only visions, only occasional purifications of the spirit. They only make life shine out for a moment. And the truth—for most—is a that a real escape is impossible. Some of us are born with the desire to live beyond industrialized aimlessness, but neither the creativity nor the tolerance for pain to do so. Our city makes us do everything by eighth measures. So be it.

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