Some measure of insanity

Let me simply record this statement from Donald Winnicott, which I have taken from the end of Adam Phillips’ short book on the enigmatically wise child-doctor and psychoanalyst:

If I want to say that Jung was mad, and he recovered, I am doing nothing worse than I would do in saying of myself that I was sane and through analysis and self-analysis I achieved some measure of insanity. Freud’s flight to sanity could be something we psychoanalysts are trying to recover from, just as Jungians are trying to recover from Jung’s ‘divided self’, and from the way he himself dealt with it.

The phrase -“I achieved some measure of insanity” – is the beautiful bell in this thought.


Notes on the death of culture (Mario Vargas Llosa)

Mario Vargas Llosa reviews, in the overture to this work, four influential essays on the traumatic descent into death of culture, as he says, in the meaning traditionally ascribed to that term. 

First, he reviews T.S. Eliot’s Notes towards a definition of culture (1948), in which Eliot anticipates today’s burning archive: “I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture.”

Then, he distances himself from George Steiner’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1971), a late reply to Eliot, haunted by the complicity of high culture with the holocaust. Steiner spoke uncertainly of the loss of the culture of the word, so personally precious to him, but now fading before the image, pop music, number and science. Steiner: “Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist.” Now the keeper and his archive burn.

Third, Guy Debord, The society of the Spectacle (1967), provides propositions that MVL incorporates into his own, and indeed the subtitle of his book, essays on spectacle and society. MVL judges Proposition 47 prescient: “the real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions.”

Fourth, two contemporary reflections on the emergence of a global democratic, market consumer or pop culture, and these provide counterpoint to MVL’s final judgement. Lipovetsky’s and Serroy’s Culture-World: response to a disoriented world and Frederic Martel’s Mainstream (2010). These works celebrate the creative industries – a ghastly term of culture bureaucrats that MVL rightly leaves in quotation marks – dedicated above all to mass production and commercial market success. But MVL does not.

While these latter authors celebrate with post-modern brio this commercial transvaluation of all values, MVL returns to and reasserts Eliot’s prophecy as a fact of today’s life.

The great majority of humanity does not engage with, produce or appreciate any form of culture other than what used to be considered by cultured people, disparagingly, as mere popular pastimes, with no links to the intellectual, artistic and literary activities that were once at the heart of culture. This former culture is now dead, although it survives in small social enclaves, without any influence on the mainstream. The essential difference between the culture of the past and the entertainment of today is that the products of the former sought to transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations, while the products of the latter are made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn. ( p. 20)

This death of culture creates a great trauma among the few isolated and devoted souls who keep their archives, write their sonnets, and study the word. It is a trauma that can only be healed by writing to defy death, through entering into Blanchot’s infinite conversation.

Life cycles

Our culture may lie in ruins; our republics may be distressed; our economies blackjacked by rentier financiers; our societies fissured with conflicts of identity; but at least our lives are longer. This great achievement of medicine and social development has changed the potential of human lives in harness with its twin, the fertility revolution. In Japan today nearly one-third of the population is over 65. Many other countries will see similar shares over the next fifty years. This new demography changes not only  societies and cultures. It changes the biological experience of life cycles and populations. There has never before been a human population with these biological and cultural characteristics before. Most people in high and middle income countries can reliably live past sixty in social institutions that provide imperfect but secure and healthy retirement. The life cycle then has more than seven seasons, and a long and blessed Autumn in which great navigations of the soul may sail. The holy city of Byzantium is becoming the busiest port of the world.

Wallace Stevens’ mind of winter

Wallace Stevens is a poet for lovers of beauty among ruins. For those of us in the second half of life he is of unique importance: diligent insurance executive, sometimes benighted husband, and much deferred, superbly deferred poet. He first read his poetry aloud to an audience, with some awkwardness in 1938 at the age of 58. His “Man with the blue guitar” – thins as they are are changed on the blue guitar – broke his chains. As Harold Bloom wrote, “the poet who had written The Man with the Blue Guitar had weathered his long crisis, and at fifty-eight was ready to begin again.” ┬áHe is the model of not asking permission from the world or critics or publishers or any circle of arts practitioners to make things of beauty, fully ripened by the the complex subtleties of a mind of winter. So, we know there never was a world for him except that he sang and in singing made. So we sit and imagine our own interior paramour, for whom we light a lamp, and for small reason think the world imagined is the greatest good.

Millenial predictions: return of totalitarianisms

Fernandez-Armesto’s second prediction was that rival totalitarianisms would return. This prediction was bravely conservative or pessimistic, when drafted a few short years after Fukuyama’s rush of hegelianism to the head in The end of history. Fernandez-Armesto by contrast saw the apparent worldwide installation of liberal democracy as a false dawn. His prediction rested on a belief that people like endless change rather less than technophiles, innovators and reformers might believe, and that liberal democrats were too pusillanimous to defend political and cultural authority to nihilist or fascist or religious challenge. The nub of his argument was “In increasingly complex societies struggling to cope with rising expectations, gigantic collective projects, baffling demographic imbalance and terrifying external threats, order and social control will come to be more highly valued than freedom.” (Millennium, p 700)

He saw new totalitarianisms on the rise in the populist right, law and order appeals, a new fundamentalist Christian movement, a faith in Marxism only inured by failure, and Islamic fundamentalism, if with qualifications that it seemed on the wane as he wrote. We have seen all of these totalitarianisms return, but with the exception of Islamic fundamentalism, not quite with the longing for order that he anticipated. Authority as a whole is fragmented in the new society of the spectacle, and even its death cults rarely seek to assume total power, but compete for cultish passion on the fringes. Western liberal societies have warded off law and order totalitarianism because security has become central to defeating the greatest cultural threat of all – Islamic fundamentalism – and the emerging geo-political threat of post-communist democratic authoritarianism – China and Russia.

Western liberalism has been hounded less by its moral queasiness, as Fernandez-Armesto feared, and more by its unleashed shadow, market totalitarianism. In a long elite driven civil war of market against society the new class of “there is no alternative” market ideologues has terrified society. Freedom has become compromised as the freedom to sell to the market, and human dignity terrorised by fear of loss of wealth. In this way, Vaclav Havel saw more clearly into the spiritual disease in Western societies when he compared the existential dilemma of living a lie in both communist and capitalist societies.

So I mark this prediction of Fernandez-Armesto as wrong since it misses the mark on both phenomenon and causes.

Reclusive samizdat

To live authentically within the ruins of our culture today, to practise the ritual of writing solemnly, without regard for fame and fortune and the flickering nonsense of panel shows, to be in the world as God’s secretary, meticulous and devoted to something larger than your own life, to live truly to each of these profound obligations requires the artist to withdraw both from the world and the relentless publicity machine of publishing. Today authenticity demands samizdat, not marketable publications. It is by circulating words and thought outside the merchant machines that writing can find its way out of the dark wood in which it cries out for a saviour. No saviour will come, and each writer must risk an ocean of silence in response to truthful words. Blanchot, for all his obscurities, prefigured the writer to come in his rigorous refusal, not of friendship, but of any promotion of the marketed figure of the writer. He did so from a place of high culture and secure publication. Today his heirs know the simplest act of pressing a button can secure the circulation of their ideas, if not any guarantee of a response, and to withhold a photo and a profile of the author of obscure samizdat renews the author’s sacred bond with Andrei Rubelev and a thousand anonymous icon painters.

The extinction of meaning

The solitary writer dwells in an oppressive fear; that the line of culture, the traditions, the teachings that his labors seek to preserve against the decay of all human institutions, this thread of meaning, which he has painstakingly recovered from the past and braided with the personal traumas that inspire any writer, this way of being will not live beyond his death. Every solitary writer fears becoming the last of his kind, and after the arrogant brashness of youth, it is mourning for the imminent death of his words that keeps more words coming. I insist on these statements, with all their confusions and ambiguities, and I set the bier afloat on the current before shooting a flaming arrow to extinguish its last untouchable meaning. We know languages are disappearing from the world, but we cannot for long contemplate the flames in the libraries and the infinite profusion of novelties that together overwhelm any tradition’s attempt to preserve meaning. We utter our own unique death rites, and slide unnoticed into the infinitude of commentary.