Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Terry Eagleton has written a short but meaty book entitled “The Meaning of Life”; Laura Miller has reviewed it over on Salon (“What is the meaning of life?”,

One of his key points is that life – most especially human life – is ‘contingent’: we don’t have to be here and – as if that’s not enough – our being here is the result of random forces. This fear (I’m not going to call it an ‘insight’) can be seen clearly by the end of the 19th century in – say – a piece of literature like the American short story “The Open Boat” and in the famously-put exchange where ‘man’ says to the universe ‘I exist’ and the universe ho-hums the reply that ‘the fact however does not evoke in me a sense of obligation’.

Such contingency is a triple-whammy: a) it leaves human beings alone in the universe; b) it leaves human beings functionally helpless in the universe; c) it leaves human beings in a universe that is indifferent to them, if not itself downright hostile, and the universe might also thereby leave humans prey to powerful and dangerous and even hostile sub-forces over which the universe has no control or refuses to exercise control. Any human being who gets up in the morning embracing that ‘modernism’ is going to become deranged or deformed by sheer terror and anxiety almost immediately, and will then become further deranged and deformed by whatever response s/he attempts to muster (withdrawal from ‘reality’; existentialist in-your-face or rock-jawed pseudo-adult posturing; a retreat from the more mature forms of being where one is required to ‘know’ and to ‘act’ and a simultaneous retreat to less mature forms of being where one simply floats more or less vigorously on the surface of events and of one’s own being). It’s not a pretty picture.

And ‘post modernism’ is no improvement because it denies that there is any solid ‘reality’ at all. And while this relieves us of the nightmare of a hostile or indifferent universe, it leaves us with no solid ground to stand on, and no solid landmarks to get our bearings whatsoever. One thinks of Kirk’s original “Enterprise” suddenly going beyond the bounds of ‘this galaxy’ and into another one so different that none of the ship’s instruments – or that main computer with the old telephone operator’s voice – can fix its position. Or plot a course out of there.

As has been noted in recent Posts in regard to the Israeli state (or “realm” as it apparently prefers to call itself), such a monstrous and awefull experience can throw humans – and especially those who govern states and peoples – seriously out of whack. We might propose that the Holocaust was the ultimate ‘modernist’ experience: suddenly a people ‘discovered’ that it was utterly alone in a very hostile world without the power to resist. To avoid ever having to go through that again folks and their government would be willing to … do whatever it takes. (And since their first major step in the direction of securing their future against a repeat was to set themselves up on a piece of real estate by ejecting its inhabitants, then they set themselves up for endless threats and deformations at the very outset of their quest for security … )

Anxiety and terror – especially if sustained – deform us humans. They cause our behaviors and our thought patterns and our emotions to revert to the most primitive, least evolved and least matured parts of our brains and selves and they mutate us into sinister forms of life similar to Tolkien’s ‘Orcs’ – those monstrous results of the effort to reduplicate the marvelous Elves – or his ‘wraiths’ – those former humans who served Evil so deeply that it has now consumed them and they exist without hope and full of purposeful hatred in a shadow world that borders our own, whence they enter into our reality possessing no power to create but great power to destroy.

Any quest for the ‘meaning’ of ‘life’ starting out from the precincts of terror and anxiety is going to be similarly burdened from the outset, and its ‘discoveries’ similarly dark, dubious, suspect and dangerous.

It is a huge insight of Eagleton’s that he realizes that both the ‘liberal’ and ‘left’ postmodernists and the ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘right’ conservatives (so-called) are radically similar in their philosophical presumptions, as unexamined as those are these days.

Both ‘sides’ are, for different reasons, philosophical “Nominalists”. Nominalism is the philosophical position that all entities and beings are ‘named’ purely as constructs of human convenience and that there are no guiding essences in some other dimension to which these entities in ‘this life’ would have to conform (and to which, in consequence, our thoughts about those entities would also have to conform).

Early Protestants embraced a form of Nominalism in order to lever some conceptual and political space for themselves against the huge weight of the organized Roman Catholic Church. Very much accepting that there was another governing dimension (God in His heaven and in His glory) beyond this one, they yet insisted that God alone had power over the shapes and forms of our ‘earthly’ dimension and that no this-dimensional, ‘earthly’ power such as the Church and Popes and bishops’ and ‘priests’ and sacraments and ‘human’ rules and the rest of the Catholic panoply of belief and practice could adequately or even legitimately constrain the workings of that Divine Will. And whatever that Will at any particular moment said was good, was good – and whatever that Will at any particular moment said was otherwise, was otherwise. The human world and human life itself was not sustained by ‘laws’ but by the ever-present, directly-intentioned Will of God, and that Will would abide no ‘middleman’, no Church taking upon itself the ‘authority’ to apportion God’s gifts or to speak and act in His name.

Clearly, that illumination - such as it is - allows for no substantive mediation between the fierce-hot direct contact with God's Will and the leaden, sluggish matter of this earthly existence and its affairs. Further, following it out, one comes to a pretty dark and demanding role for humans in such a set-up: participating, collaborating, mired in and enwhored to the dreck-sludge of material existence, humans have no choice but to throw themselves onto God's hell-hot mercy and hope for the best while trying to keep their noses clean and close to the grindstone. Thus John Calvin.

American 'fundamentalism' was and is - well - American. So you have to have a happy ending. And you have to have the Lebensraum (oops, I borrowed that from a different messianism) to do what you have to d0, to do whatever it takes, and still stay in the Divine Will. The solution that the Fundies evolved (oops, again) was to get 'saved', or rather, to declare oneself 'saved'. Thus burnished, one could do whatever one felt it was going to take to do whatever one felt was the 'best' way to go, while still enjoying God's delight and - wheeee! - His authority. What was not to like?

Post-modern nominalism grew out of a similar need to lever some Lebensraum. Given the oppressive control exercised by the established 'have' powers of the world, and by conformity to those powers' concept of order and identity and right and wrong, the post-modern Theorists - with the most noble intentions - figured that the quickest way to proceed was to pull the conceptual rug out from under the whole edifice. Thus, there was no Right and no Wrong, and no authority to tell others what to do or how to do it and so the whole thing was up for grabs and may the best grabber win. Everything was wide open and totally fluid and life was just a bowl of cherries except shapeless and without-essence and waiting for those human hands that 'got it' to stretch forth and do the creating thing previously ascribed to that ultimate Dead White European Male, the artist formerly known as 'God', and His (male) minions. Grrrowwff!

Probably, the deeper-thinking post-modernists and advocates (the ones who did not deceive themselves as to the essentially calculating political nature of their glorious revolutions) figured that once they had actually come to power then they would need to sober up and start acknowledging that the Highway of Being indeed needed - and had - some very clear lines painted on it. But, like the Great Yellowstone Fire of 1988, things sorta got away from them, and the controlled but groovily creative destructions so gleefully begun began to create their own outcomes, and all those outcomes began to change the whole ballgame and define a new 'reality' altogether. Had one not been constrained by the already-entrenched Political Correctness, one might profitably have exclaimed with Albert the Alligator: "Gack!". But no such warning alerts were permitted, since a revolution in Theory brings no dangerous downside (except to the former oppressors who deserve whatever they would get). The sorcery mastered the apprentices. It could happen to anybody.

So we are now to conduct our individual lives, and We are now to conduct the life of the Republic, while existing on or in a sea of Ultimate Mush. The Fundies have solved that problem by pretending that they are standing on the solid rock of God's Authority and Power. The assorted revolutionaries have solved that problem by avoiding it, presuming - but not daring to say - that there really is nothing else but this-world, Mush though it may conceptually be; and that everybody can still feel good enough if they just focus on achieving 'milestones' and 'goals', however symbolic.

And so here We are, in the Year of Former Grace 2007: the Fundies are making war on Evil (them 'libbuls') and Sin as national domestic and foreign policy; the assorted revolutions are making war on crime (certain types) and men (generally, but with a few graciously-declared exceptions). We no longer produce much of anything tangible; We are in hock to the nation identified as America's most probable rival; Our currency is starting to become rather 'symbolic' itself; We have zero tolerance for pain or frustration, We have the attention-span of a three-year old, and We consider the ability to present oneself as a Victim to be the summation of maturity; We can no longer tell Right from Wrong, especially if it looks like We might be up to Our necks in Wrong.

Meanwhile the Executive has authorized torture and child-abuse (for 'enemy' children) and pre-emptive nuclear war on non-nuclear nations and has now given itself the right to run the country if it feels there's an 'emergency'; the Congress can barely recover its ability to influence events after Twelve Years of an orgy that can most charitably be referred to - as Scripture would have it - as a "whoredom of whoredoms"; and the Supreme Court considers that torture makes a great organizing theme for a dinner party and that it is itself the great giver of Order to the shapeless mass of the citizenry - if only the citizenry would stop yapping and listen up. We are losing a war and an army in Iraq and the Executive seems ready to throw the Navy and the Air Force at Iran. We appear oblivious to what the rest of the governments and peoples of the earth are thinking about Us.

We are desperately in need of some grown-up to burst through the door and demand "What is the meaning of all this?".

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Blogger David said...

Maturation involves a progressively deeper grasp of the fact that when our mothers assured us that 'everything is going to be all right' they were lying in order to create the illusion of a safe space that we all need to grow-up in if we are to have any self-confidence at all.

Most of the 'pathology of the ghetto' can be traced back to the fact that such parental assurances can be seen as palpably empty by children there long before they reach the age of reason.

Retreat into bad religion or the secular solace of murderous nationalism, ideology etc. is a natural temptation.

Whatever the ultimate fate of the cosmos, we all know, in our better moments, that our personal universe will come to an end at our impending death.

Christ and all previous formulators of the golden rule who antedated him (from Confucius onward) realized that whatever one's level of faith and hope, the greatest of the theological virtues is charity.

Our personal requirements for faith and hope vary. This fact should be respected. Some believe that, in the evening, we will be examined on love. Others suspect that we will just have to examine ourselves.

St Ignatius' admonition to contemplate our lives from the standpoint of how they might look to us on our deathbed is sage advice whether or not one believes 'love is stronger than death' in any traditional sense.

5:08 AM  

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