Playing the Indian Card

Monday, September 03, 2007

Mistah Kurtz--He Dead

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

TS Eliot perhaps had it right—the lines are from his grand poem “The Hollow Men”--describing the Modern Era as a slow slide into non-existence.

We hinted at this last post, musing that the “counterculture” was a suppression of emotion in favour of desire. This involved a reduction of both ourselves and other human beings from subjects into objects. It involved a reduction of ourselves andother humans into no more than our physical bodies. And this, we noted, was part of a wider, ongoing movement in this regard.

This is what Eliot was talking about, in “The Hollow Men.”

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, the general claim made by the terminally cool, at least in my earshot, was that we were all “out of touch with our bodies.” The press laments eternally that we are not taking proper care of the earth, or of our earthly flesh—global warming, the “obesity epidemic,” pollution, smoking, and the like.

As ever, this common view is the perfect inverse of the truth. Fitness crisis? So how come we are living much longer than never before? Ecological collapse? So how come we grow materially wealthier, year by year, and grow more food, while more people have potable water than ever?

The body is in fact the only part of our being that we care about; and “nature” has become the thing we worship. That’s what distinguishes modern Western civilization from all others: its sheer physicality.

“Psychology” means literally, “knowledge of the soul.” What is our approach to the soul? To stuff the body with chemicals. Are physical approaches likely to be the most direct and most efficient ways to treat spiritual illnesses? Not bloody likely. I hear one mental hospital introduced pets to the wards. From that point, the suicide rate was zero. But such straightforward solutions—a pathetic little bit of love for and from another being--are anathema, because they admit the existence of something more than bread alone. We know nothing, any more, of the soul. Most of us do not even believe it exists.

I recall recently a TV commercial which urged us all to “take care of the inner you.”

How is this to be done? Physical exercise.

There is no longer any inner us. As Eliot observed.

We are the hollow men.
We are the stuffed men.
Leaning together,
Headpiece filled with straw.


We know our bodies, though, inch by quivering inch; usually, we indulge their every whim. We refuse our bodies things if and only if it is for their own good. Dieting, for example; or working out in the gym—and this is what we take to be virtue. Merely seeking to rot longer.

I watch proud professionals avoiding the stairs for the elevator, the sidewalk for their car, and then working out for an hour or more on their treadmills, and I cannot but think Eliot—and Jesus—got it right. This materialistic world is very like the classic Hades, the land of the dead without hope of salvation. What do these treadmill walkers resemble, running nowhere forever, but Sisyphus in Tartarus, forced eternally to push a stone up a hill and watch it roll back down again. What do these desperate dieters so resemble, as Tantalus, punished in the underworld by a vast banquet always just beyond his grasp?

It is all slow death by fast desire.

Never mind the suppression of love—which Eliot captures in such lines as:

Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

…We grope together
And avoid speech.

For that’s all others are to us, any more—broken stones. Mere things.

We also, equally, suppress hate and anger.

We fear violence to the point of hysteria, for example—to the point even of banning the spanking of children. To the point of condemning war as war, even a just war in self defense.

But it is not violence, per se, that we fear, is it? We have no problem at all with abortion, which is violence in the extreme. It is not even a crime; it does not even cost us money to do it. It is the anger and the hate and the courage that can accompany violence—the strong emotions—that we really fear. For we think it important to give stiffer penalties for crimes committed in a state of passion—“hate crimes”—than those done in cold blood, out of pure self-interest or desire. This seems mad, and is a reversal of the wisdom of the ages.

And it is not just emotion, either. It is everything except the body: it is reason, conscience, and imagination, too, that we fear. For they, too, can go counter to our will, to our desires.

The subjugation of reason to will and desire is apparent already in the philosophy of Adolf Hitler; but it is even clearer in postmodernism and in the movement called “human potential.” People maintain nowadays, almost as a matter of course, that we can actually choose our own beliefs; and that the choice we make is perfectly random and not open to dispute. As one young respondent remarked to Ted Byfield, “just because a thing is true does not mean that I have to believe it.”

Reality and reason must bend to our desires, rather than our desires to reality or reason.

Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

This is the dying of the light; this is death’s twilight kingdom. The light of reason has gone out.

It is less obvious that we have also abandoned imagination. The rediscovery of the lost imagination, after all, almost looks like the whole point of the counterculture. Yes, it was recovered by a purely physical means, by drugs, but it was claimed that the trip experience in the end recovered the knowledge that the imagination and its objects were real and powerful.

And yet, we did not really accept, or endorse, their reality. We accepted them as real only in so far as they seemed to correspond with our desires. We did not admit, then or even now, that the trip experience might have a dark side, that it might teach us unhappy things; that it might require things of us; or that the world of the imagination might include monsters and demons as well as angels and cute gnomes. We remained casual tourists in this strange foreign land. It remained, for us, as Freud and Jung call it, "subconscious" or "unconscious."

Just as we have subverted “love” to mean only sex, we have subverted the word “dream” to mean only our desires. When we speak of our “dreams,” we do not really mean our dreams, or even our daydreams, both of which we ignore. We mean our wants, our desires. To us, those who take their dreams seriously, as the early Christians did, are mad, “raving” (the word means, literally, “dreaming”).

And so, as Eliot realizes, we have systematically reduced our being, our consciousness, our selves, to the vanishing point: nothing but a rag stuffed on a stick. Nothing but the body and a bundle of ravening desires.

Unfortunately, of all the things we are, it is the body that knows death; it is the physical world that is subject to time. So, by reducing ourselves to no more, we have committed suicide. We are already in the dead land, the desert of prickly pears.

And death is as much our present as our future: bodies without souls are dead bodies. If we still move, it proves only that we are vampires.

This is the truth we must not speak. And so we fear any mention, any hint of death. We do not want to see it, we do not want to hear of it, we do not want to think about it. We take quite unreasonable steps to delay it as long as possible. Have someone dial 911 in Canada these days, and an ambulance, a police car, and a firetruck all appear with sirens blazing. That speaks of panic.

This is mad. We will all die; it is not something we can avoid. This being so, and the longest lifetime being trivial against eternity, a sane person would instead face death squarely, and make ready for it.

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

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