The Futility of Man’s Search for Meaning

Here is a very insightful, I am tempted to say brilliant, article by “Spengler” in the Asia Times.

The article is an argument against the central effort of modernity, namely, man’s search for meaning. The article interprets this “search for meaning” to be a search for originality, particularly originality of artistic self-expression, based on the ludicrous notion of Sartre that a man’s essential nature is something he can invent for himself.

If man’s nature is something he invents for himself, in order to be an invention, it must be original, and in order to be original, it must defy all prior tradition; but these means posterity must defy him in turn, and cast him and his work into the rubbish heap of history. Spengler says:

If we set out to invent our own identities, then by definition we must abominate the identities of our parents and our teachers. Our children, should we trouble to bring any into the world, also will abominate ours. If self-invention is the path to the meaning of life, it makes the messy job of bearing and raising children a superfluous burden, for we can raise our children by no other means than to teach them contempt for us, both by instruction, and by the example of set in showing contempt to our own parents.

I have spoken before of my shock and horror (which continues to this day) when I came across some politically correct nitwit lambasting Robert Heinlein, of all people, for being insufficiently sexually liberated.

It was then that I realized that the solemnities of the Political Correct were always and forevermore the Feast of Saturn, where you consume your children and are overthrown by them, as Saturn ate and was overthrown by Zeus, after you are down overthrowing your own father, as Saturn castrated Uranus.

On would think that, merely out of a sense of self preservation, or in hope that one’s work would be admired rather than despised in times to come, it would be in one’s own self interest to encourage the reciprocal notions of piety to one’s ancestors and from one’s progeny. The heart of the ecological movement, that most fashionable of all movements, is based on the notion of selfless concern to pass a legacy on to the next generation we faithfully received from the prior. Why, then, this desire to pass the natural world along to our heirs, but obliterate our cultural world?

I never understood the reason for this inter-generational cannibalism and enmity, nor why the Post-Moderns were so abysmally parochial, having only the most dim notions, or none at all, what life was like in other nations, or in other parts of their own nation, or in other centuries, or in previous decades.

I never understood the paradox of why the Post-Moderns both claimed to be outrageously original, and yet they eschewed originality in thought, to point of enforcing uniformity of doctrine by law.

Spengler’s article offers an explanation. His argument is that Existentialism is the effort of man to reinvent himself. Such reinvention by its very nature must be original, revolutionary, radical. But there are not an infinite number of possible worlds or possible world views which both (1) retain enough of the Western philosophical heritage to justify Existentialism (which, after all, springs from specifically Western, that is Christian, assumptions, axioms, and mode of thought) and (2) reject enough of the Western tradition to claim to be original and revolutionary.

Indeed, my own thought, heavily influenced by the ideas of the Russian Orthodox monk Seraphim Rose, is that there is only three ways of rejecting the Western Tradition, once the rebellion of the Enlightenment has usurped the role of the Church, and enthroned allegedly pragmatic and worldly values where once Christian virtues reigned.  Those three ways are socialism, spiritualism and nihilism. Each of these has its various schools and heresies, factions and subdivisions, but in the main, their votaries follow certain predictable, if not stereotypical, ruts of thought.

When the rebel seeks to reinvent himself, and he wishes to rebel against the status quo, the bourgeoisie values, the stale conformity of life, he is really rebelling, in the West, against the established Church, and in the modern West, he is really rebelling against the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment, or, in other words, rebelling against the disestablished Church.

Like all rebels, he is a heretic, and like all heretics, he plucks one thread out of the organic tapestry of Christian thought, elevates it to unwieldy supremacy, and uses that newly-crowned supreme good to dismiss or denigrate the other aspects of Christian teaching.

Examples are almost too many to list. The Sexual Revolutionary takes the Christian doctrine of freedom of the will, conflates it with the freedom to do whatever is willed, and exaggerates this freedom to be the supreme good, and then denigrates the sacrament of marriage and the prudent virtues of chastity on the grounds that to abide by the bands of marriage and the bounds of common sense is an unforgivable imposition on human freedom. Or, again, the socialist plucks up the strand of Christian otherwordliness and suspicion of money and elevates that to a supreme good, paradoxically scoffing at the worldly greed of investors and at the same time promising greater wealth and efficiency to flow from centralized planning of the economy, and the mass expropriation and mass robbery of all productive men in the nation. Christian notions of lawfulness, respect for boundary lines, obedience due worldly authorities, and so on, are trampled in the general stampede toward the mirage of utopia.

Let me quote Spengler again:

The only thing worse than searching in vain for the meaning of life within the terms of the 20th century is to find it, for it can only be a meaning understood by the searcher alone, who by virtue of the discovery is cut off from future as well as past. That is why our image of the artist is a young rebel rather than an elderly sage. If our rebel artists cannot manage to die young, they do the next best thing, namely disappear from public view, like J D Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. The aging rebel is in the position of Diana’s priest who sleeps with sword in hand and one eye open, awaiting the challenger who will do to him what he did to the last fellow to hold the job.

This modern love of self-reinvention leads to idolizing youth, which, of all ages of man, is the one least worthy of admiration, lacking the helpless charm of infants and the maturity and prudence of adulthood or the grave wisdom of age. Spengler, again:

[…] We attempt to stay young indefinitely. Michael Jackson, I argued in a July 2009 obituary, became a national hero because more than any other American he devoted his life to the goal of remaining an adolescent. His body lies moldering in the grave (in fact, it was moldering long before it reached the grave) but his spirit soars above an America that proposes to deal with the problem of mortality by fleeing from it.

This modern love of self-reinvention leads to sterility. The Last Men (so Hegel called them) may be the Last Men indeed, by aborting their future. Spengler says:

A recent book by the sociologist Eric Kaufmann (Will the Religious Inherit the Earth?) makes the now-common observation that secular people have stopped having children. As a secular writer, he bewails this turn of events, but concedes that it has occurred for a reason: “The weakest link in the secular account of human nature is that it fails to account for people’s powerful desire to seek immortality for themselves and their loved ones.

This modern love of self-reinvention leads to a vain infatuation with originality.

I should hasten to add, with a false notion of originality. ULYSSES by James Joyce was ‘original’ in the sense that it eschewed traditional artistic elements like plot and character development and decency and, in one section, punctuation. It was basically meant as  a mockery (these days we would call it a deconstruction) of the Odyssey, and the pagan heroics of old. LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien was original in that no such sustained work of the imagination had heretofore been attempted, nor had the ancient matter of elves and knights and magic rings and other material of epic and folklore been placed in a prosaic and realistic background, where the number of days of a hero trudging across a fully detailed landscape, for example, could be calculated, or the runes on the door of a ruined dwarf mine could be referenced to a specific era and year of an invented past.

Why is ULYSSES inchoate garbage, adored only by a shrinking coterie of literati suffering from terminal affectation, whereas LORD OF THE RINGS is widely (and correctly) regarded as the best novel of the century?

It is because the originality in Tolkien was in keeping with the traditional forms of the modern novel and the matter of folklore and epic, whereas Joyce was in typically modern rebellion, seeking to discredit and destroy the matter of epic, and all traditional forms of story teller’s craft.

Well, Joyce’s novel hails from AD 1920, within the same decade as Edgar Rice Burrough’s A PRINCESS OF MARS. It is difficult to believe the modern rebel of 2012 will admire and adhere to its quaint rebellion by interbellum cynics against the Victorian intellectualism, optimism, and propriety of two decades prior.

As Spengler observes:

The high art of the Renaissance or Baroque, centered in the churches or the serious theater, has disappeared. Ordinary people can’t be expected to learn a new style every time they encounter the work of a new artist (neither can critics, but they pretend to). The sort of art that appeals to a general audience has retreated into popular culture. That is not the worst sort of outcome. One of my teachers observes that the classical style of composition never will disappear, because the movies need it; it is the only sort of music that can tell a story.

[…] But no destiny is more depressing than that of the artist who truly manages to invent a new style and achieve recognition for it.

He recalls the Rex Nemorensis, the priest of Diana at Nemi who according to Ovid won his office by murdering his predecessor, and will in turn be murdered by his eventual successor. The inventor of a truly new style has cut himself off from the past, and will in turn be cut off from the future by the next entrant who invents a unique and individual style.

Spengler’s article draws together several threads of thought, and shows a common logic behind the otherwise puzzling repeated pathologies of the modern age: the childlessness, the selfishness, the lack of even rudimentary artistic sense or taste, the lack of even rudimentary moral sense or taste (particularly in the sexual sphere), the general indifference to the prospect of destroying the civilization, the overwhelming mental and moral sloth and retardation that afflicts our so-called intellectuals.

All of these are by products of the parochialism of the current time which this act of pretend self-invention has as an inevitable by-product. Modern man is told he has the right and perhaps the duty to make himself out of his own clay, like Adam without a God, and the blatant self-contradiction of a nonentity willing itself into entity, of effect without cause, is brushed aside, along with any sober concern about rationality.

We live in a Dark Ages. Do not be deceived by our technological marvels. The era after the fall of Rome in the Western lands of Europe was also an age of unparalleled technical advancement, from eyeglasses to clockworks to horsecollars to wheelbarrows to stirrups. What makes this age Dark is not merely a contempt for reason, but an inability of the educated classes to reason coherently when called upon to do so.

A man who thinks he can reinvent his own human nature by an act of will is a man who, ultimately, does not believe that truth is true.