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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 6: “The Flight From Laputa”)

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In the last post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we looked at some of the Christian sources of existentialism within the Western Tradition, from the contributions of Christian authors like Tertullian, to the works of Christian theologians like Augustine and Pascal.  There are a lot of other writers as well, particularly a number of poets and novelists that existed during, and shortly after, the Age of Enlightenment, which all had a substantial impact on existentialism.  In this chapter, Barrett mentions several of these writers, many putting out a number of literary works throughout the period of Romanticism and also the two most prolific Russian authors, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who wrote their most influential works in the mid to late 19th century.

Barrett opens up this chapter with some brilliant commentary on Jonathan Swift’s most famous book, the English classic Gulliver’s Travels.  He brings our attention to a particular episode in that book, namely the unforgettable voyage to Laputa: a large island that hovers above the earth, floating and navigating in the sky through the use of an enormous magnet and earth’s own magnetic field.  Once Gulliver is shipwrecked and brought up to the island, he finds the people living there to be incredibly strange-looking and also behaving in some odd ways.  One particularly creepy detail is the fact that the people don’t ever focus on the eyes of the person they are speaking with; instead they have one eye turned upward toward the sky, as if in some kind of perpetual contemplation of the cosmos; and the other eye points inward as if in some kind of perpetual introverted state.  Their foods are cut into a variety of geometric shapes and their clothes are rather ill-fitting garments resulting from a tailoring process that relies exclusively on strict geometries, and they are decorated with shapes of the sun, moon, stars, and a plethora of musical instruments.

Swift’s intention here was to create an imaginary world that was a kind of manifestation of reason incarnate, where the inhabitants have completely structured their lives around reason and are lost in a perpetual state of mental abstraction and disconnectedness.  To further solidify the intended historically-relevant metaphor, we’re also told about the ordinary earth dwellers living below the Laputans, who also happen to be subject to the ruling of the Laputans living overhead.  And these ordinary earth-dwellers are described as being far happier than their Laputan rulers for a number of reasons.  The Laputans are unable to have a normal human conversation nor have the interpersonal emotional connection that may accompany such an interaction, because these absent-minded intellectuals have almost completely lost any sense of who’s around them at the moment, requiring constant reminders from servant-boys about when it is time to talk or to listen (as the case may be) lest they might slip away into some kind of philosophical speculation in mid-conversation.  So despite the Laputans standing on a pedestal of superiority, perhaps implied metaphorically by their floating on an island “above” everyone else (which may also be a metaphor for their lack of grounding in Being or in being fully human), they seem to be missing a core part of their humanity.

Clearly we are meant to be given a description of a world showing how reason is insufficient to fulfill many of our psychological needs as human beings; and its blatant lack of emotional expression, interpersonal relationships, and, for lack of a better word any “organic” form or structure at all, has been fueled by some kind of post-Enlightenment belief that reason can fix all of mankind’s problems.  We’re also meant to see how the resulting cultural sterilization brought on by reason (such as that within Laputa) has created an aversion to such a mode of living for many, such that some people begin to seek out passion any way that they can get it (for better or worse):

“The men and movements of which it does stand as a prediction will find themselves at times in the desperate quandary of the prime minister’s wife, ready to throw themselves into the arms of a drunken footman if that is the only way out of the sterile kingdom of reason.  In the search for the Dionysian, after all, one cannot always be expected to be bound by good taste.”

Here, I believe Barrett’s brief reference to the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy to be paramount to understanding the historical-cultural impetus underlying the clash between reason and emotion, and ultimately between rationalism and existentialism.  By creating an imbalance in this dichotomy, for example by not giving enough resources or importance in finding a means of “Dionysian expression” in a society, a kind of tension begins to build up until the proverbial “bubble” bursts and the Dionysian portion of our being is over-expressed leading to another imbalance albeit one going the other way.  As much as one would hope to be able to prevent this kind of explosive feedback, it may be the case that we’re not able to sense an imbalance of this sort until it’s become so drastic that a violent outburst (or an overcompensation of some kind) is the only way to tip the scales back to equilibrium.

Then again, perhaps the signs of an imbalance are always there and we just need to look a bit more closely at how our culture is expressing itself (and not just at a superficial level).  We ought to look closer at the artists, the writers, and the changes occurring to how our identities are shaped compared to those of the preceding generations.  As an example, one sign of this imbalance in the post-Enlightenment Western world, furthering existential development, was exemplified very powerfully by the artistic works of the romantics, which Barrett explores in this chapter.

1.  The Romantics

“However we choose to characterize Romanticism-as a protest of the individual against the universal laws of classicism, or as the protest of feeling against reason, or again as the protest on behalf of nature against the encroachments of an industrial society-what is clear is that it is, in every case, a drive toward that fullness and naturalness of Being that the modern world threatens to let sink into oblivion.”

This characterization of romanticism reminds me of an important theme that I mentioned in my last post, and one that I think is absolutely worth reiterating here; namely, what I call the desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  This fact is, as I see it anyway, the simplest way of describing and explaining the psychological motivations for the advent of existentialism.  Industrialization, mass production, capitalism, and the maximization of efficiency have led to a world that is entirely alien to the one we evolved within.  And again, it would be entirely surprising if we found ourselves living in the modern world without these existential problems.

The fruits of modernity as well as the plethora of super-normal stimuli that have precipitated from our technology have in some sense fooled our brains over the course of many generations such that our evolutionarily-endowed strategies for survival have inadvertently led us to the psychologically inhospitable world we now live in.  Our situation is analogous to a group of people having made incredible strides in a field like chemistry such that they are now able to refine, purify, and concentrate chemicals like never before; but eventually a product like heroin is created which ends up consuming the lives of the people living in that world, drastically diminishing their happiness, and yet the attraction to the drug has already taken hold of their way of life, inclining them to make ever more powerful versions of these drugs eventually leading to their own self-destruction.

Similarly, we’ve gained a lot of amenities and a vast power of manipulating our environment through the use of reason.  It has allowed us to discover more facts about the world than ever before, in turn enabling us to make technological gains at an exponential rate, perhaps leading to our getting lost in the novelty and the positive changes made to our standards of living.  But once this genie was let out of the bottle, a runaway situation occurred where the benefits we were paying attention to distracted us from the fact that it was also generating and exacerbating a psychological imbalance.

I believe our best chance of resolving this problem is going to rely on a combination of genetically engineering our species to feel better-adapted to our ever-changing culture and by restructuring the world in ways that better resonate with our evolutionary environmental niche, and yet still do so in ways that are technologically innovative so as to not take a huge step backward in the amenities that modernity has provided us.

In looking at some of the poets that had a distaste for much of modernization, Barrett mentions the poet William Blake:

“Blake is recognized easily enough as the poet against the industrial revolution…”The atoms of Democritus, And Newton’s particles of light, Are sands upon the Red sea shore, Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.”

This excerpt is from Blake’s Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau”, a poem written by Blake that appears to be more or less a defense of his religious views against those of science generally, rather than a protest against the industrial revolution specifically.  In this poem, he seems to suggest that any mockery of faith and religion such as that originating from Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau is somewhat of an exercise of futility as the society is largely unwilling to accept their ideas anyway.  And the mechanistic ideas espoused by brilliant scientific thinkers such as Democritus and Newton are small and insignificant compared to the breadth and power of religion and the belief in God, let alone the belief in God as the Creator that subsumes any paltry discoveries that man might make.

Another way to interpret this poem is to say that Blake is simply emphasizing the importance of using imagination along with reason, and he may be pointing out that human beings seek mythological constructs and grand designs of their world alongside the numerous facts that are discoverable through science.  If creative imagination is integral to being human, and if this integral component inevitably results in religious myth-making, then we should be careful in how we assess the apparent collision between reason and religion.

It seems to me that it is the failure to accept various facts about the world that has many proponents of reason opposed to religion, including many existing during the Age of Enlightenment.  The conflict however has largely been a tug of war over what I believe is a false dichotomy: choosing either reason or religion as exclusive modes of living or being.  Just as the religious don’t entirely discount reason (because they have to use it in much of their day-to-day lives, many who do so willingly), similarly the champions of reason shouldn’t entirely discount all that is involved in or accomplished with religion.  I think that human beings need an outlet for their creative imagination and emotional expression and they can and ought to produce mythological constructs and other allegorical narratives in stories, poetry, novels, cinema, and music, in order to serve as outlets for this creativity.

I for one want people to be able to express themselves, even if this is done through creative myth-making such as that found within religion; but the difficulty arises when the myths are actually believed as true and then this can interfere with accepting actual facts about the world which can subsequently impair one’s moral decision making.  Unfortunately, the myths that have been produced for millennia have most often been treated as truths and facts within those cultures rather than simply intuitive stories trying to make an important point through allegory and metaphor.  Perhaps we can have the latter without requiring the former; finding a way to appeal to our intuitions, emotions, and imagination, yet without having to sacrifice a reliable epistemology in the process.  This may allow reason to more harmoniously coexist with the deeper roots of our humanity.

Early on, Barrett also mentions some specifics concerning why Blake was opposed to industrialization:

“Mills and furnaces are evil, to Blake, because they are the external manifestations of the abstract and mechanical mind which means the death of man.”

Similarly, I can see how he would have been opposed to other means of mass production such as the assembly line, the distribution of labor in general, and processes involved in mass chemical synthesis such as distillation; all of which that can be seen as externalizations of the hyper-use of reason, logic, and reductionism.  Even ignoring the textile industry’s role in producing a person’s clothing, an explicit artifact of this kind of externalization would be recognized whenever a person living in Blake’s own time pulled out their pocket watch; a purely mechanical device that also illustrates the degree of precision and efficiency in an industrialized world that rations every minute of a person’s life as it sees fit.  No longer are we informed of the progression of our day by noting the whereabouts of the sun in the sky, as our ancestors once did and just as the rest of nature is apt to do; instead our time has become far too precious in maintaining our busy schedules than to conform to a more natural account of our time and existence.  We’ve each become an “Alice” in a wonderland of abstraction with no time to simply breath; instead we’re inclined to follow the example of the March Hare, chasing him down the rabbit hole of modernity as he shouts “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

I suppose we could say that we’ve been cut off from nature insofar as we’re no longer like other animals living in the present moment; instead, we seem to be forever living in the future, where even our own existence and identity have become an abstraction centered around the relatively meaningless goals that we’ve been indoctrinated to value.  Now this shouldn’t be taken to mean that our consideration of the future isn’t also an important part of our being human, for it is, and in fact a vision of the future of human possibilities is a central driving force within Romanticism as well even if it seems more heavily inclined toward a return to the past.  But in our modern world, we’re pressured into the idea of being defined by what society wants us to become, in large part based on expectations that are not conducive to a fulfilling life.  Some of these expectations have included directing our attention away from a more natural way of life and towards a life that glorifies artificial metrics of success that have no intrinsic value to us as human beings.

It is apparent and obvious that something has happened to modernity’s connection to nature; which is easily recognized by looking at all of our artificial environments, functions, and modern concerns.  And Barrett actually mentions the concept of Being as implied in the poet William Wordsworth’s works, as one relying on a deep connection to nature.  Wordsworth unsurprisingly criticizes the intellect as something that severs us from this connection in his poem “The Tables Turned” :

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.

Rather than simply being in nature and receiving what she has to offer by effortlessly taking in one’s surroundings as a whole, humans (most especially modern humans) often distance themselves from their raw experiences by analyzing them and breaking them down into very abstract concepts.  And we learn many of the abstract concepts used in this kind of analysis not from our own experience per se but from books and other derivative sources of information, thus further distancing ourselves from the original felt experience.  So it should come as no surprise to hear that Wordsworth was partial to the idea that learning directly from nature is far more effective than traditional learning from books and so forth, even though (perhaps ironically) he still wanted people to read his writings and he continued to make use of books himself.  But I think the driving point here is that even though books are important for a lot of reasons and even though we shouldn’t dispense of them nor should we dispense with analyzing our experience from time to time, we ought to spend more time living in the moment and not parsing everything out into abstractions that take away from the holistic attributes of the experience.

Whereas Wordsworth was grieving over the disconnection from nature that he saw taking place with regards to many of his contemporaries, he didn’t feel this way about himself.  It is here that Barrett turns to some of the works of Coleridge, for he commented on the same predicament but he was also writing about his own feelings, where he found himself no longer finding any happiness in nature.  Coleridge was perhaps the first poet to explore some of these existential feelings from his own perspective; encountering the void itself and all the anxiety it brings along with it:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear–

This excerpt from Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” was a personal confession of his having lost his sense of feeling, even wishing for a violent storm to erupt at one point in this poem such that he could feel something.  He describes his experience in some vivid detail and points to the fact that the degeneration of his feelings has a correlation with a degradation of his own imagination.  And he alludes to there being an inherent separation between man’s feelings and the forms found in nature; where the feelings have to be created from within rather than given to us from our simply being in nature.

One interesting trait within Coleridge’s work, and which may help to explain some sentiments in the poem referenced above, is the fact that he makes use of imaginative flights where he leaves the present time and place and substitutes them for a setting that’s entirely manufactured from his own creativity.  And this quality of Coleridge contrasts a bit with the sentiments of Wordsworth, where the former often makes use of separating himself from the nature around him in its present state and the latter emphasizes the importance of taking in nature as it is in the here-and-now.  Both strategies maintain a connection to nature in one way or another but one uses imagination to augment it potentially into a surreal experience whereas the other is more of an experiential realist that simply “receives” nature directly.

Barrett compares Coleridge’s melancholy to that of Faust in Goethe’s poetic drama:

“Both are in or near the condition of breakdown, trapped in a paralysis of feeling in which everything has turned to dust and ashes, including the meddling intellect that has tyrannized over both.”

Even though Goethe set out to distance himself from Romanticism later in his life, Faust represents Goethe at his most romantic.  And it is in Faust-Goethe that we see a strong tie to humanity as a collective being with an essential yearning to both live and grow, even if this is only accomplished by an amalgamation of the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy; a fusion of stability and chaos; a marriage between self-restraint and personal freedom.

Freedom is a concept that Barrett also touches on with respect to Goethe’s interest in alchemy, where he ties the concept to “the dark halo of magic around him,” which served as a kind of sign of man’s lust to transcend his own limitations.  And what better place to incorporate the problem of free will, than with the desire to harness magical power in order to manipulate anything at your command.  Most people haven’t pondered over the free will conundrum in any philosophical way, for example, by considering the logical contradiction between causation or randomness and a human freedom that is self-caused or causa sui.  But the fact of the matter is, the only way for people to have a libertarian form of free will would be by some kind of magic, where the logically impossible is made possible, and so it seems to be no coincidence that the figure of the magician is, as Barrett puts it: “…the primitive image of human freedom.”  He also reminds us of the fact that magic and alchemy are recurring elements throughout the history of Romanticism where they betray our personal aspirations of becoming something more than we are.

Tying all of this together, Barrett reveals a more profound quality or role of the poet:

“Poetry is no longer an art merely of making verses, but a magical means of arriving at some truer and more real sphere of Being.  Poetry becomes a substitute for a religion.”

And this may be true in the sense that poetry allows one to open the channel between reason and emotion, or between reality and imagination.  In any case, whether one is drawn toward a form of expression offered through poetry or religion, it is the search for a way of transcending humanity or at the very least in overcoming our estrangement to Being itself, that drives us into these modes of living.

2. The Russians: Dostoevski and Tolstoy (realist fiction)

One prominent theme within Russian literature is the contrasting of the intellectual class with the rest of humanity, and Barrett points out a relation between the two:

“Intellectuals as a class suffer to the degree that they are cut off from the rest of mankind.  But intellectuals are the embodiment of reason, and reason itself if cut off from the concrete life of ordinary mankind is bound to decay.”

This is an interesting conclusion that the intellectuals in Russia were in a unique position to see, for they had a physical and cultural separation from the primary beneficiaries of the Enlightenment: namely, the West.  Even though they could examine this period in history as intellectuals, they did so with the desire to establish or maintain their own identity, allowing them to see what was happening in their society from a different perspective than the intellectual classes in Europe and the U.S.  The fact that Russia had a more conservative culture than the West also inhibited the cultural diffusion that would have otherwise further fused Western culture with that of Russia.

There were historical contingencies as well that facilitated a burst of philosophical contemplation, some of which Barrett mentions as relating to a disruption in the stability of society:

“A society that is going through a process of dislocation and upheaval, or of revolution, is bound to cause suffering to individuals, but this suffering itself can bring one closer to one’s own existence.  Habit and routine are great veils over our existence.  As long as they are securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit.  When the social fabric is rent, however, man is suddenly thrust outside, away from the habits and norms he once accepted automatically.  There, on the outside, his questioning begins.”

You may notice the mention of habit and routine here, a recurring theme from the last post (on chapter 5), which included Pascal’s mention of our escaping from a close consideration of the human condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.” 

In the case of Russia, the social fabric had been disrupted by the influx of ideas stemming from the Enlightenment, thus causing a more pressing need for many to question the old traditions and religious belief systems that had, up to this period in Russian history, withstood the tests of time.  And it was in the greatest intellectual writers of Russia, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, that we see a fresh perspective on the effects of the intellectual class on their society and in terms of an essential view of man.  Since Russia hadn’t developed any kind of philosophical tradition, the ideas that were pouring in from the West began to permeate the general populace, thus causing a less stable (more passionate, less objective) processing of these ideas.  And Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, two of the most prominent intellectuals within that populace, provided plenty of philosophical insight on their own, without the need for any philosophical professorship or the like.

Admittedly I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Tolstoy yet, but I have read all of Dostoyevsky’s major works; and one recurring theme in many of his novels is the exploration of the mind of a criminal.  He was inspired by his time in a Siberian prison camp where he spent a great deal of time with a number of criminals, gaining some insight in terms of their psychology and which led him to make some conclusions about human nature in general.  Barrett explains:

“What Dostoevski saw in the criminals he lived with is what he came finally to see at the center of man’s nature: contradiction, ambivalence, irrationality.  There was a childishness and innocence about these criminals, along with a brutality and cruelty, altogether unlike the murderous innocence of a child…In them Dostoevski was face to face with the demoniacal in human nature: perhaps man is not the rational but the demoniacal animal.”

I’m certainly sympathetic to this view, for humans not only have an intelligence that is often applied in a pre-meditated, Machiavellian fashion, but we also have our crimes of passion which seem to be derived from the irrational portion of our psyche combined with our instincts as a social animal trying to move upward within a dominance hierarchy.  We often use violence and cruelty as a means to move up the social ladder which can manifest itself in our day-to-day behavior or, if we’re privileged enough to avoid such behavior even most of the time, then a dose of poverty, a little bad luck, or simply a moment of desperation, will often bring this cruel monster hiding inside each of us out into full view.  In the end, we have to recognize what Hume said long ago: that reason is but a slave of the passions.

Hume’s point can be made clear in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment where the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, feeling alienated from the masses around him, uses reason during his bout of despair to arrive at a pre-Nietzschean theory with an imperative to rise above any ordinary moral code.  But after succumbing to this line of reasoning and putting it into practice, killing the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, and her sister Lizaveta, he is overcome with guilt and suffers a mental and physical breakdown.  His passions clearly got the better of him and he is unable to reconcile his actions with his own conscience and thus unable to subdue the emotional roller-coaster that ensues.

Barrett describes the situation in terms of a failure of repression:

“Raskolnikov’s theory has not reckoned with his own self, and the guilt over his crime brings on a breakdown.  Precisely the feelings that had been repressed in this intellectual-the ordinary human horror at the taking of life-erupt and take their revenge.”

The problem as I see it is not Raskolnikov’s use of reason in his moral theorizing, but the fact that he didn’t incorporate his likely emotional reactions into the moral theory and plan of action that he devised for himself.  He took many of his emotions and feelings entirely for granted, which are the ultimate drives in directing one’s behavior, and which are therefore the primary underlying impetus in determining what we feel we ought to do.

All moral systems that can have any claim to being true and which are sufficiently motivating to follow will ultimately break down to hypothetical imperatives: if you want X above all else, then you ought to do Y above all else; and X is going to be a subjective criterion based on what maximizes personal satisfaction and fulfillment in one’s life.  Since human beings have certain psychological and sociological characteristics given the species that we are, there are a limited number of behaviors that are conducive to maximizing psychological health and well-being; and this means that we have to take these facts about ourselves into account in devising any moral theory that will actually work for us.  And given our differences as individuals, there are additional facts to take into account in making a moral theory that will work most effectively for any particular individual given their psychological idiosyncrasies, even if there are still some set of universal morals that apply to all psychologically healthy human beings.

Deciding to kill other people simply because one has discovered some good reasons for doing so is not likely, given our psychology, to work all that well; since it’s likely to have a negative effect on how we see ourselves as a person.  If all the reasons are taken into account, or at least a particular set of reasons that includes our emotional predispositions or our subjective experience generally, then reason can be used and ought to be used for constructing a viable moral theory.  But Raskolnikov didn’t do this, and so we can see the limits of reason here as well when the facts pertaining to our subjective experience are not given their due consideration.  If our most basic emotional tendencies are inhibited for too long or beyond a certain threshold, it’s only a matter of time before our psyche cracks under the pressure.

Barrett points out the negative role that reason plays in a number of Dostoyevsky’s literary themes:

“These destructive and even criminal possibilities of reason were the philosophic themes on which Dostoevski played his most persistent variations…In ‘The Possessed’ (Demons) a group of political intellectuals are shown as being possessed by devils, ready to scheme, lie, even kill for the abstract ideals of Progress, reason, socialism.”

Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to blame reason itself for any of the morally reprehensible behaviors that Dostoyevsky saw with the criminals around him, with his fictional characters, or even with human beings in general.  Instead, I think the lesson should be that reason can be used to fuel immorality, but only in cases where one isn’t considering all the facts (or at least isn’t considering enough of the facts) pertaining to one’s own psychology and that of the people around them, or isn’t thinking rationally about those facts.  On the other hand, with emotion or irrationality, there doesn’t even need to be a reason to act immorally and instead it may just precipitate in a kind of Dionysian, impulsive, and instinctive way.  What’s most important here, I think, is to acknowledge that reason can’t be used on its own, nor can emotion or subjectivity, when it comes to devising any effective (let alone sustainable) moral theory; both are integral and indispensable for informing us about what will maximize moral behavior and thus human happiness as well.

And if we deny ourselves the chaotic spontaneity or unpredictability that we often find adding a valuable kind of novelty in our lives, then we have another problem as well:

“In a rational utopia, he cries, man might die of boredom, or out of the violent need to escape this boredom start sticking pins in his neighbor-for no reason at all, just to assert his freedom…If science could comprehend all phenomena so that eventually in a thoroughly rational society human beings became as predictable as cogs in a machine, then man, driven by this need to know and assert his freedom, would rise up and smash the machine.”

This is reminiscent of the trip to Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels that we heard near the beginning of this chapter, where Barrett mentioned the inevitable search for the Dionysian in an attempt to avoid the sterile kingdom of reason.  Predictability and the concept of free will are also very salient here, for the intuition that leads us to believe we have a kind of libertarian free will, despite its logical impossibility, is in part an artifact of our inability to predict the future beyond a certain threshold.  More importantly, it’s the fact that we can’t predict our own behavior, or the causes of our own behavior (including those within our unconscious mind) with a high enough degree of accuracy, that causes us to feel that we are the sole authors of our actions rather than being intimately connected within a deterministic causal chain.

And even though our knowledge is limited in fundamental ways, for example by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (stemming from the quantum mechanical properties of our universe), we still have access to enough knowledge (in principle at least) whereby if we actually obtained it, our happiness and overall psychological health would suffer immensely.  Why might this be?  Well, if we consider the fact that our species evolved to thrive in a world where we didn’t have any pragmatic access to this kind of knowledge, then we might better appreciate the fact that our human psychology isn’t adapted to value such predictive power.  The irony here is that our brain operates on a fundamental principle of making more and more accurate predictions, where it wants to continuously decrease its own prediction error by updating its models of the world or behaving in ways that make those predictions come true; but it also wants to seek out new information about the world, and so in a way it’s also attracted to uncertainty, always looking to uncover more of the world’s mysteries in order to solve them.

Unfortunately, with the advent of science, formal logic, and the explicit processes of reason and the technological progress that’s we’ve gained from the use of such cognitive tools, we’re beginning to reach a level of knowledge that’s encroaching on our intuitive sense of our own freedom of the will.  This is something we should have been thinking very seriously about ever since we entered the information age.  We should have been thinking about how we ought to structure the direction of our technological progress, putting in some design constraints so as to preserve our psychological well-being given the kinds of knowledge that we’re destined to uncover and given what we don’t want to uncover.

There’s a tricky balance we have to respect and which is all too often taken for granted, where we want to continue making strides in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, such that we can inform our moral system of more and more relevant information about ourselves to further maximize our happiness; but we also want to make sure not to detract from this moral goal and so we need to continue learning what kinds of information we ought not have immediate access to.  As long as we begin to take this balancing act seriously, we can continue to make advancements in knowledge while not working against our primary objectives as human beings.

Aside from the problem of knowledge we face, we also must face the fact that as our lives are built around increasing levels of abstraction, we begin to resent it:

“What the reformers of the Enlightenment, dreaming of a perfect organization of society, had overlooked, Dostoevski saw all too plainly with the novelist’s eye: Namely, that as modern society becomes more organized and hence more bureaucratized it piles up at its joints petty figures like that of the Underground Man, who beneath their nondescript surface are monsters of frustration and resentment.”

As Nietzsche had explored in his On the Genealogy of Morality, resentment or ressentiment can serve as a creative force for change; a kind of catalyst to create a new system of morals (for better or worse), but it is often done to justify one’s own weaknesses and to divert attention away from one’s own responsibility for their lives by blaming a scapegoat instead.  So while resentment may lead to personal growth if the conditions are just right, it more often leads to a feeling of hostility towards those perceived as the cause of one’s frustrations.  If this resentment is bottled up and left to fester for too long, it may lead people to take out their anger on anyone and everyone around them; to lash out irrationally in a fit of violence.  And who could blame them for this, after perceiving that they’re inevitably trapped in a life with so many things that are out of their control?

Even in the face of resentment however, one can see the value of life when push comes to shove and one comes face to face with death itself.  The time that once seemed to flow on by, with each minute as meaningless as the one before or after it, now becomes as precious as ever as if each infinitesimal moment now stretches on through an eternity.  Dostoyevsky mentions the life changing power of such an experience in his novel The Idiot, where the character Prince Myshkin retells the story of an unidentified man (presumably representing Dostoyevsky himself):

“This man had once been led out with the others to the scaffold and a sentence of death was read over him….Twenty minutes later a reprieve was read to them, and they were condemned to another punishment instead.  Yet the interval between those two sentences, twenty minutes or at least a quarter of an hour, he passed in the fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes….The priest went to each in turn with a cross.  He had only five minutes more to live.  He told me that those five minutes seemed to him an infinite time, a vast wealth….But he said that nothing was so dreadful at that time as the continual thought, “What if I were not to die!  What if I could go back to life–what eternity!  And it would all be mine!  I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one!”  He said that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly.”

Of course, the main lesson to learn here is that in the face of one’s own death, life takes on an absolute value and as Barrett says “The meaning of death is precisely its revelation of this value.”  And there will certainly be more to say about this when we get to the chapter on Heidegger and explore his concept of Being-towards-death.

As we move from Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, we find a fairly different view of man; and this difference is in some ways like that between night and day.  Whereas the former had a more morbid or pathological view of man, the latter is more akin to expressing the better angels of our human nature.  But both men brought to light the knowledge of the Dionysian aspects of our being.  It’s useful to look at a passage from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where her husband, the very rational and intellectually-minded Alexey Karenin, slips into a fit of jealousy over his wife:

“He felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational, and did not know what was to be done.  Alexey Alexandrovitch was standing face to face with life, with the possibility of his wife’s loving someone other than himself, and this seemed to him very irrational and incomprehensible because it was life itself.  All his life Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived and worked in official spheres, having to do with the reflection of life.  And every time he had stumbled against life itself he had shrunk away from it.  Now he experienced a feeling akin to that of a man who, while calmly crossing a bridge over a precipice, should suddenly discover that the bridge is broken, and that there is a chasm below.  That chasm was life itself, the bridge that artificial life in which Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived.  For the first time the question presented itself to him of the possibility of his wife’s loving someone else, and he was horrified at it.”

And this was Tolstoy’s goal ultimately as a novelist: the standing face to face with life, with truth, and with the way the world and our existence within it really is.  The trouble arises if we fail to accept life and instead hide ourselves from it, and what Tolstoy saw was that our own powers of intellect can be the cause of this concealment; by giving us only a reflection of what life is, through abstractions, social conventions and the comforts brought to us through our daily use of routine.

And what kind of truth did the characters in Tolstoy’s novels end up finding?  Rather than some kind of intellectual truth consisting of propositions that could be spelled out here, it was an existential truth and so a truth that’s inherently difficult to put into words.  The truth was more or less a kind of openness to Being, where one finally faced the true possibilities that may unfold in their lives, even with that inevitable “possibility of the impossibility of existence” (as Heidegger put it): death itself.  And the natural unfolding of life as seen in Tolstoy’s novels, with a predominantly organic milieu, is meant to illustrate the necessary search for truth in one’s life and the truth about life itself.

To return to a previous theme mentioned earlier (in part 5, on Christian sources), Barrett says:

“The meaning of life, if there is one, says Tolstoy, must be found in these ordinary souls and not in the great intellects of the race.  Whatever ultimate meaning there is is vital and not rational.  The peasantry are wiser in their ignorance than the savants of St. Petersburg in their learning.”

And here again, I think this highlights the importance of subjectivity and our overall feeling of contentment; something that can’t be overcome or superseded by rationality nor by the rationalizations borne out of our intellect.  The meaning of life is ultimately derived from feeling and emotion, forces that lie in the deepest parts of our being.  And while the meaning of life may still be discovered by some of the great intellects in any period of history, Tolstoy’s point is still well taken; for the intellectual class has all too often overestimated the reach of the intellect and simultaneously undervalued or entirely devalued the fundamental role of “the vital”.  In the next post in this series, I’ll be starting a survey of part 3, “The Existentialists”, beginning with chapter 7, on Kierkegaard.

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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 3: “The Testimony of Modern Art”)

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In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness, where Barrett gives an overview of some of the historical contingencies that have catalyzed the advent of existentialism: namely, the decline of religion, the rational ordering of society through capitalism and industrialization, and the finitude found within science and mathematics.  In this post, I want to explore Part I, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art.  Let’s begin…

Ch. 3 – The Testimony of Modern Art

In this chapter, Barrett expands the scope of existentialism, its drives and effects, on the content of modern art.  As he sees it, existentialist anxiety, discontent, and facing certain truths resulting from our modern understanding of the world we live in have heavily influenced if not predominated the influence on modern art.  Many find modern art to be, as he puts it:

“…too bare and bleak, too negative or nihilistic, too shocking or scandalous; it dishes out unpalatable truths.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that these kinds of qualities in much of modern art are but a product of existentialist angst, feelings of solitude, and an outright clash between traditional norms and narratives about human life and the views of those who have accepted much of what modernity has brought to light, however difficult and uncomfortable that acceptance is.

We might also be tempted to ask ourselves if modern art represents something more generally about our present state.  Barrett sheds some light on this question when he says:

“..Modern art thus begins, and sometimes ends, as a confession of spiritual poverty.  That is its greatness and its triumph, but also the needle it jabs into the Philistine’s sore spot, for the last thing he wants to be reminded of is his spiritual poverty.  In fact, his greatest poverty is not to know how impoverished he is, and so long as he mouths the empty ideals or religious phrases of the past he is but as tinkling brass.”

I can certainly see a lot of modern art as being an expression or manifestation of the spiritual poverty of our modern age.  It’s true that religion no longer serves the same stabilizing role for our society as it once did, nor can we deny that the knowledge we’ve gained since the Enlightenment has caused a compartmentalizing effect on our psyche with respect to reason and religious belief (with the latter being eliminated for many if the compartmentalization is insufficient to overcome any existing cognitive dissonance).  We can also honestly say that many in the modern world have lost a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, and feel a loss of connection to their community or to the rest of humanity in general, largely as a result of the way society (and in turn, how each life within that society) has become structured.

But, as Barrett says, the fact that many people don’t realize just how impoverished they are, is the greatest form of poverty realized by many living in modernity.  And we could perhaps summarize this spiritual poverty as simply the lack of having a well-rounded expression of one’s entire psyche.  It seems to me that this qualitative state is tied to another aspect of the overall process: in particular, our degree of critical self-reflection which affects our vision of our own personal growth, our ethical development, and ultimately our ability to define meaning for our lives on our own individual terms.

One could describe a kind of trade-off that has occurred during humanity’s transition to modernity: we once had a more common religious structure that pervaded one’s entire life and which was shared by most everyone else living in pre-modern society, and this was replaced by a secular society that encouraged new forms of conformity aside from religion; and we once had a religious structure that allowed one to connect to some of the deeper layers of their inner self, and this was replaced with more of an industrialized, consumerist structure involving psychological externalization which lended itself to the powers of conformity already present in the collective social sphere of our lives.

Since artistic expression serves as a kind of window into the predominating psychology of the people and artists living at any particular time, Barrett makes a very good point when he says:

“Even if existential philosophy had not been formulated, we would know from modern art that a new and radical conception of man was at work in this period.”

And within the modern art movement, we can see a kind of compensatory effect occurring where the externalization in modern society is countered with a vast supply of subjectivity including the creation of very unique and highly imaginative abstractions.  But, underneath or within many of these abstractions lies a fundamental perspective of modern humans living as a kind of stranger to the world, surrounded by an alien environment, with a yearning to feel a sense of belonging and familiarity.

We’ve seen similar changes in artistic expression within literature as well.  Whereas literature had historically been created under the assumption of a linear temporality operating within the bounds of a well-defined beginning, middle, and end, it was beginning to show more chaotic or unpredictable qualities in its temporal structure, less intuitive plot progressions, and in many cases leaving the reader with what appeared to be an open or unresolved ending, and even a feeling of discontent or shock.  This is what we’d expect to occur if we realize the Greek roots of Western civilization, ultimately based on a culture that believed the universe to have a logical structure, with a teleological, anthropomorphic and anthropocentric order of events that cohered into an intelligible whole.  Once this view of the universe changed to one that saw the world as less predictable and indifferent to human wants and needs, the resultant psychological changes coincided with a change in literary style and expression.

In all these cases, we can see that modern art has no clear-cut image of what it means to be human or what exactly a human being is, for the simple reason that it sees human beings as lacking any fixed essence or nature; it sees humans as transcending any pre-defined identity or mold.  Lacking any fixed essence, I think that modern conceptions of humanity entail a radical form of freedom to define ourselves if we choose to do so, even though this worthwhile goal is often difficult, uncomfortable, and a project that never really ends until we die.  Actually striving to make use of this freedom is needed now more than ever, given the level of conformity and the increasingly abstract ways of living that modern society foists upon us.

Another interesting quote of Barrett’s regards the relationship between modern art and conceptions of the meaningless:

“Modern art has discarded the traditional assumptions of rational form.  The modern artist sees man not as the rational animal, in the sense handed down to the West by the Greeks, but as something else.  Reality, too, reveals itself to the artist not as the Great Chain of Being, which the tradition of Western rationalism had declared intelligible down to its smallest link and in its totality, but as much more refractory: as opaque, dense, concrete, and in the end inexplicable.  At the limits of reason one comes face to fact with the meaningless; and the artist today shows us the absurd, the inexplicable, the meaningless in our daily life.

This is interesting, especially given Barrett’s previous claim (in chapter 1) about existentialism’s opposition to the positivist position that “…the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the meaningless.”  Barrett’s more recent claim above, while not necessarily in contradiction with the previous claim, suggests (at the very least) an interesting nuance within existentialist thought.  It suggests that positivism wants to keep silent about the meaningless, whereas existentialism does not; but it also suggests that there’s some agreement between positivism’s claim of what is meaningless and that of existentialism.  Both supposedly contrary schools of thought make claims to what is meaningless either implicitly or explicitly, and both have some agreement as to what falls under the umbrella of the meaningless; it’s just that existentialism accepts and promulgates this meaninglessness as a fundamental part of our human existence whereas positivism more or less rejects this as not even worth talking about, let alone worth using to help construct one’s world view.

Barrett finishes this chapter with a brief reminder of the immense technological progress we’ve made in modern times and the massive externalization of our lives that accompanied this change.  But there is a growing disparity between this external power and our inner poverty; an irony that modern art wants to expose.  Tying this all together, he says:

“The bomb reveals the dreadful and total contingency of human existence.  Existentialism is the philosophy of the atomic age.”

And that pretty much says it all.  Originally, life on this planet (eventually including our own species) was born from the sun, in terms of its elements and its ultimate source of energy.  Now we live in an age where we’ve harnessed the power that drives the sun itself (nuclear fusion); the very power that may one day lead to the end of our own existence.  I find this situation to be far more ironic than the disparity between our inner and outer lives as Barrett points out, as we are on the brink of wiping ourselves out by the very mechanism that allowed us to exist in the first place.  Nothing could be a more poetic example of the contingency of our own existence.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 2: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition, Chapter 4: Hebraism and Hellenism.

A Scientific Perspective of the Arts

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Science and the arts have long been regarded as mutually exclusive domains, where many see artistic expression as something that science can’t explain or reduce in any way, or as something that just shouldn’t be explored by any kind of scientific inquiry.  To put it another way, many people have thought it impossible for there to ever be any kind of a “science of the arts”.  The way I see it, science isn’t something that can be excluded from any domain at all, because we apply science in a very general way every time we learn or conceive of new ideas, experiment with them, and observe the results to determine if we should modify our beliefs based on those experiences.  Whenever we pose a question about anything we experience, in the attempt to learn something new and gain a better understanding about those experiences, a scientific approach (based on reason and the senses) is the only demonstrably reliable way we’ve ever been able to arrive at any kind of meaningful answer.  The arts are no exception to this, and in fact, many questions that have been asked about the arts and aesthetics in general have not only been answered by an application of the aforementioned general scientific reasoning that we use every day, but have in fact also been answered within many specific well-established branches of science.

Technology & The Scientific Method

It seems to me that the sciences and the various rewards we’ve reaped from them have influenced art in a number of ways and even facilitated new variations of artistic expression.  For example, science has been applied to create the very technologies used in producing art.  The various technologies created through the application of science have been used to produce new sounds (and new combinations thereof), new colors (and new color gradients), new shapes, and various other novel visual effects.  We’ve even used them to produce new tastes and smells (in the culinary arts for example).  They’ve also been used to create entirely new media through which art is exemplified.  So in a large number of ways, any kind of art has been dependent on science in some way or another — even by simply applying the scientific method by hypothesizing a way to express art in some way, even through a new medium or with a new technique, where the artist experiments with that medium or technique to see if it is satisfactory, and then modifies their hypothesis if needed until the artist obtains the desired result for what they’re trying to express (whether through simple trial and error or what-have-you).

Evolutionary Factors Influencing Aesthetic Preferences

Then we have the questions that pertain to whether or not aesthetic preferences are solely subjective and individualistic, or if they are also objective in some ways.  Some of these questions have in fact been explored within the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology (and within the field of psychology in general), where it is well known that humans find certain types of perceptions pleasurable, such as environments and objects that are conducive to our survival.  For example, the majority of people enjoy visually perceiving an abundance of food, fresh water and plush vegetation, healthy social relationships (including sex) and various emotions, etc. There are also various sounds, smells, tastes, and even tactile sensations that we’ve evolved to find pleasurable — such as the sound of laughter, flowing water, or rain, the taste of salt, fat, and sugar, the smell of various foods and plants, or the tactile sensation of sexual stimulation (to give but a few examples).  So it’s not surprising that many forms of art can appeal to the majority of people by employing these kinds of objects and environments within them, especially in cases where these sources of pleasurable sensations are artificially amplified into supernormal stimuli, thus producing unprecedented levels of pleasure not previously attainable through the natural environment that our senses evolved within.

Additionally, there are certain emotions that we’ve evolved to express as well as understand simply because they increase our chances of survival within our evolutionary niche, and thus artistic representations of these types of universal human emotions will also likely play a substantial role in our aesthetic preferences.  Even the evolved traits of empathy and sympathy, which are quite advantageous to a social species such as our own (due to them reinforcing cooperation and reciprocal altruism among other benefits), are employed by those that are perceiving and appreciating these artistic expressions.

Another possible evolutionary component related to our appreciation of art has to do with sexual selection.  Often times, particular forms of art are appreciated, not only because of the emotions it evokes in the recipient or person perceiving it, but also when they include clever uses of metaphor, allegory, poetry, and other components that often demonstrate significant levels of intelligence or brilliance in the artist that produced them.  In terms of our evolutionary history, having these kinds of skills and displays of intelligence would be attractive to prospective sexual mates for a number of reasons including the fact that they demonstrate that the artist has a surplus of mental capacity to solve more complex problems that are far beyond those they’d typically encounter day to day.  So this can provide a rather unique way of demonstrating particular aspects of their fitness to survive as well as their abilities to protect any future offspring.

Artistic expression (as well as other displays of intelligence and surplus mental capacity) can be seen as analogous to the male peacock’s large and vibrant tail.  Even though this type of tail increases its chances of being caught by a predator, if it has survived to reproductive age and beyond, it shows the females that the male has a very high fitness despite these odds being stacked against him.  It also shows that the male is fit enough to possess a surplus of resources from its food intake that are continually donated to maintaining that tail.  Beyond this, a higher degree of symmetry in the tail (the visual patterns within each feather, the morphology of each feather, and the uniformity of the feathers as a whole set) demonstrates a lower number of mutations in its genome, thus providing better genes for any future offspring.  Because of all these factors, the female has evolved to find these male attributes attractive.

Similarly, for human beings (both male and female), an intelligent brain that is able to produce brilliant expressions of art (among other feats of intelligence), illustrates that the genome for that individual is likely to have less mutations in it.  This is especially apparent once we realize that the number of genes in our genome that pertain to our brain’s development and function accounts for an entire 50% of our total genome.  So if someone is intelligent, since their highly functional brain was dependent on having a small number of mutations in the portion of their genome pertaining to the brain, this shows that the rest of their genome is also far less likely to have harmful mutations in it (and thus less mutations passed on to future offspring).  Art aside, this kind of sexual selection is actually one prominent theory within evolutionary biology to explain why our brains grew as quickly as they did, and as large as they did.  Quite simply, if larger brains were something that both males and females found sexually attractive (through the feats of intelligence they could produce), they would be sexually selected for, thus leading to higher survival rates for offspring and a runaway effect of unprecedented brain growth.  These aesthetic preferences would then likely carry over to general displays of artistic ability, thus no longer pertaining exclusively to the search for prospective sexual mates, but also to simply enjoy the feats of intelligence themselves regardless of the source.  So there are many interesting facets that pertain to likely influential evolutionary factors relating to the origin of artistic expression (or at least the origin of our mental capacity to do so).

Neuroscience & The Arts

One final aspect I’d like to discuss that pertains to the arts within the context of the sciences, lies in the realm of neuroscience.  As neuroscientists are progressing in terms of mapping the brain’s structure and activity, they are becoming better able to determine what kinds of neurological conditions are correlated with various aspects of our conscious experience, our personality, and our behavior in general.  As for how this relates to the arts, we should also eventually be able to determine why we have have the aesthetic preferences we do, whether they are based on: various neurological predispositions, the emotional tagging of various past experiences via the amygdala (and how the memory of those emotionally tagged experiences change over time), possible differences in individual sensitivities to particular stimuli, etc.

Once we get to this level of understanding of the brain itself, when we combine it with the conjoined efforts of other scientific disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology and psychology, etc., and if we collaborate with experts in the arts and humanities themselves, we should definitely be able to answer a plethora of questions relating to the origin of art, how and why it has evolved over time as it has (and how it will likely continue to evolve given that our brains as well as our culture are continually evolving in parallel), how and why the arts affect us as they do, etc.  With this kind of knowledge developing in these fields, we may even one day see artists producing art by utilizing this knowledge in very specific and articulate ways, in order to produce expressions that are the most aesthetically pleasing, the most intellectually stimulating, and the most emotionally powerful that we’ve ever experienced, by design.  I think that by putting all of this knowledge together, we would effectively have a true science of the arts.

The arts have no doubt been a fundamental facet of the human condition, and I’m excited to see us beginning to learn the answers to these truly remarkable questions.  I’m hoping that the arts and the sciences can better collaborate with one another, rather than remain relatively alienated from one another, so that we can maximize the knowledge we gain in order to answer these big questions more effectively.  We may begin to see some truly remarkable changes in how the arts are performed and produced based on this knowledge, and this should only enhance the pleasure and enjoyment that they already bring to us.