culture and anticulture

"Ethics and aesthetics are one" Ludwig Wittgenstein

4. Walmart and the Woods

culture and anticulture

Take away the normal life of everyday thoughts, feelings and desire – bringing only your sensitive attention – and enter into a sprawling, high-ceilinged, blindingly lit rectilinear warehouse, packed with shelves of innumerable aggressively-colored goods on offer, loud tinny music and intrusive announcements and bereft of any humane architectural impulse: the big box store – the WalMart, Wally World.

The most obvious undertone of feeling associated with even brief immersion in this manufactured pandemonium is profound ineffable fatigue – the draining away of one’s vitality.  No physical or mental exertion induces this lifelessness, but rather a strangely palpable invasive miasma at enmity with the very life of the soul.

‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate’ – Abandon all hope, ye who enter.

This is what is fundamentally expressed through the aesthetic vocabulary of this form of mass merchandizing.

Very different aesthetic languages evoking very different tones of feeling exist:

‘The wilderness…

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37. Mephistopheles and the Muses

(For context see Post 1)

Several years ago a woman visiting friends in a Midwestern city told them of her longing to spend time contemplating several paintings in the local art museum.  She showed them images of these paintings on a computer linked to the internet.  One of her friends, a graduate student in philosophy, remarked that a visit to the museum was an unnecessary anachronism, as the images were available online.  A fruitless argument ensued.  The graduate student, an authoritative Philistine, insisted that whatever the charm or aesthetic power borne by these pictures, it could, at a certain level of digital mimicry, be replicated to near perfection to offer the same aesthetic impressions. His visitor inarticulately insisted that this was untrue.

This is an old, one could say, archetypal dispute.  The philosophy student takes the role of Mephistopheles in Faust—the cold reasoner, the debunking materialist.  He essentially scoffs at the idea of magical, living properties in a work of art and would no doubt hold the same view of human consciousness – that when adequately imitated by artificial means, (as in the case of artificial intelligence) the two are essentially the same.  He is clever and has ready-made, ironclad logic at his disposal.  His argument seems irresistible. The contrary claim seems weak, unreasoning, mystically juvenile.

For the materialist, there can be no question of mysterious, spiritual properties clothing themselves in substance, whether in works of art or living tissue.  Everything is made of distinct bodies and forces, everything can be seen as expressing the logic of a machine.  Nowhere are meaning, ideals and personality fundamental.  They are illusory side effects of impersonally evolved matter and energy.  They are appearance, not reality.

The anti-materialist sees, in a true work of art, matter taken up by forces of soul and spirit and subtly transformed by them, so that no copy is the bearer of the full power imprinted by the artist upon the original work.

The artist, sitting before a canvas or block of stone, must go through a rich process of approach and withdrawal, of active doing and quiet contemplation.

Hans Holbein –
‘Portrait of a Woman in a White Coif’

In the case of oil painting, a process of layering of pigment and glazes slowly builds the image; in sculpture, the removal of material unveils the image.  The object is worked upon and works back upon the maker.  The anti-materialist claims that the profound artist is actually a sort of magician and that a great work is an act of conjuring.  This claim can only be based on the authentic results of earnest contemplation and reflection.

The honest and consistent materialist holds the exact contrary view.  The materialist MUST be a Philistine—the treasure-houses of museums and private holdings for him must be the residual of a by-gone age when images had to be created with infinite pains and inconveniences.  They are no more than fetish-objects.  They have no magical properties because magic is, in principle, impossible.  A near exact replica is as good as the original.

There is no doubt that the Mephistophelean point of view has won on the earth. The idea that meaning arises from non-meaning and that the world is made of composites rather than organic wholes underlies the post-modern technology of our day.  The digital image, based on the pixel – a composite built of atomized fragments – is the dominant manner of displaying and generating images, by means of a machine-assisted facility never previously possible.

Winning an argument is one thing—having a true image of the world, another.

Consulting actual experience, the sensitive soul knows directly that great art is, in fact, endowed with mysterious, real power.  Arguments against this reality are based on rhetoric and theory, not on living experience.

(“Let the phenomenon be its own theory.”   -Goethe)

“Always stand by form against force.”     -John Ruskin

What he means by form is the physical expression of soul and spiritual power-against mere physical force, unensouled and without spirit.

John Ruskin

36. Mass Culture and the Crisis of European Civilization


(For context see Post 1)



A Day at the Vatican Museum – A Day in Hell

The museum is, in part, a sort of huge sausage factory.  Already somewhat stale meat (tired, harassed human beings) enter at one end and, relieved of a significant sum of euros, are processed en masse through a vast labyrinth of halls, corridors, and stairways.





For an honest person, the resemblance to industrialized cattle herding is irresistible.  The attractions are the innumerable aesthetic objects displayed, culminating in the Sistine Chapel, where densely-packed, noisy, milling hordes are harangued by guards shouting, “NO FLASH” at frequent intervals.






It is obviously not the case that no good can come from visiting the Vatican  Museum, but the display of artifacts – whose purpose was to depict and inspire the higher creative life of mankind – in this unutterably vulgar fashion, is terribly destructive.  It might be called hyper-Philistine: art as mass spectacle and trophy, as souvenir trinket.  Throughout Europe and the world, as at the Vatican, one sees the industrialization of the cultural life.







Pompidou Museum-Paris



We can think of all true and great art as essentially devotional objects, whether they are religious or not – as aids for inspiration to higher states of mind.  The purpose of the higher life of humanity is to transcend and transform our instinctive, unfree, animal nature, and give expression to the free human individuality.  As such, great art can have a higher ethical influence on the way people live together.  Throughout history, artistic representation has affected the moral and ethical development of society.  A great painting, for example, is a new creation out of nothing, out of the inner being of the individual artist.  The experience of aesthetic forces, the ideas embodied by the artist, are then ideally re-experienced by the beholder.  As we have argued before, there is a fundamental relationship between aesthetic and moral forces.  Thus great art contributes to the picture people have of what the world is or may be, of what it is to be a human being.

The era of Classical Greece, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic Movement played a vital role in the progress of Europe towards social democracy.  Contrary to the tendency to associate Europe with evils like slavery and colonialism, it has also been the carrier of ideals of individual human rights and the free human being (a peasant having as much intrinsic value as a moneyed aristocrat).  Europe, primarily Western and Middle, came to believe in a common humanity based on the primacy of the human individual.

Both in Renaissance Florence and Classical Athens, the central political ideal was that of the free creative citizen.  Not solely a warrior, tradesman, or farmer, a citizen had a higher vocation as a human being: in Greece it was to aspire to arete – to grace, excellence and virtue of body and intellect.  How much their art was a reflection of this ideal or a stimulus is hard to say, but art, poetry, and literature are potent forces in the formation of a person’s character.  These artifacts endowed people with a sense of their own urbanity and a certain kind of dignity.

You could say that public painting, sculpture, and architecture in the ancient world were there for mass consumption, but the population was much smaller and people lived in the daily presence of that art.  In Athens, for example, it was not just part of the interior of their houses, but of their entire milieu – Athens itself was a work of art.  Private spaces were small and unassuming, but the finest artistic expression was sought out for public spaces.




Temple of Athena-Delphi



The art that was part of this evolution of culture, instead of being made available to people in a form more suitable to contemplation, is now imprisoned and exhibited for crude mass consumption.  To the sensitive eye, there is a hostile and destructive relationship between the all-permeating technical culture, driven by greed, and the human individuality.  This mass anti-culture has preempted and suppressed the guiding, inspiring effects of great art in the contemporary world.

European social democracy emerged from the cultural ideals of the past, but is no longer sufficiently inspired by them to defend itself from concentrated financial power.  Europe, unlike the U.S., has resisted the dominating effects of money to the extent of having social health, justice, and solidarity hold their ground, until recently.

The Europeans are being Americanized, that is, organized rationally, spiritlessly and soullessly.  The great artistic repositories of the past are being run by public relations types, that is, Philistines; and already there is, in the case of Greece, talk of privatizing cultural sites in return for so-called bailouts.  However inevitable this post-modern predicament, social reform will not go far unless the impulses which lead to great art are liberated, and can lend their forces to social renewal.





Victor Hugo


Are great social movements possible without the accompanying forces of the arts?



35. The Aesthetic Effects of Flower Forms

(For context see Post 1)


Flowers are the apex of aesthetic creation in nature.  As with all other aesthetically charged phenomena, there is a language of form, color and gesture among the flowers.  In this post, we will touch upon the language of form.  The purpose of these descriptions is to aid in arresting one’s attention on the shapes of flowers and to experience them more deeply.


1. Daisy                                      vs                                     Trillium

         Many petals                                                                   Few petals





The daisy objectively belongs to the warm, sunlit, open air of the meadow.  Its composite flower form has a cosmic aspect; it seems to be in touch with everything.  It has a solar, peripheral quality.  The straight outwardness of the petals and the pushing forward of the central disk creates a force that is assertive, active, outward, radiant, busy and noisy.  The great regularity imparted by the many petals is very reminiscent of the inorganic world – a snowflake or a mineral crystal.








The trillium is quiet, calm, stately, less active, less energetic.  It is more elegant, more undulating, languid, and more individualized.  The flower structure is less strictly geometric and crystalline, more passive and sensuous.  The petals are less flat and broader; they fold backward instead of maintaining a rigid plane.  The center of the flower is recessed and unseen.  The trillium is at home in the dark, damp depths of the forest floor.





2.    Stream Violet                               vs                       Penstemon

Outward                                                                      Inward


By breaking bilateral symmetry (two petals above on either side, and one striped petal below) the violet is already suggestive of a sensing, face-like quality.  It is still wide open like the daisy, but radically more localized (rather than radiating), and more personalized and ensouled, with its hint of facial expression.  It is less straightforward and more enigmatic than the daisy, yet still planar and extroverted.








The penstemon is much more directional, adding the physical element of depth and concealment, by virtue of its tubular structure and intricate inner organization.  This is in contrast to the universal, all-relating aspect of the daisy and, to a certain extent, the violet.  The penstemon is beginning to have a body, a torso – a hint of the animal element delicately ensouling it.





3. Baneberry                                        vs                           Bleeding Heart

Open                                                                       Closed



Baneberry is a thick cluster of lines and points; a dense little galaxy of star-like nodes and connecting filaments, opening out into the universal periphery.  It is without back, front or sides.  In this sense, it is more boundless than the daisy and the violet – a veritable celestial globe of a flower, permeable to the light.






In contrast to the all-relating filaments of the baneberry, the bleeding heart is walled off from the surrounding world: fruit-like, yet hollow, a hidden world unto itself.  There is something unflower-like and secretive in this kind of complete enclosure and pendant-like quality.



The natural world is the epitome of refined taste, astounding in its variety.  Yet there are archetypal polarities lurking everywhere, just beneath the surface of our shallow attention: the many and the few, outward and inward, open and closed – embodied within each, a fundamental aesthetic power.


Simple, sustained contemplation begins to disclose a language of form in nature.  This is partly what Goethe meant when he said: “Let the phenomenon be its own theory”.


34. The Language of Depth in a World of Noise Part II

(For context see Post 1)


Words are not the ideas and images they refer to–they draw attention to them, but are not the meanings themselves.  The common meaning of words is a portrayal of the history of their use–the dictionary “definitions” are a distillation of this history.  For a word to be a suitable tool for human expression and reception, it must have been used a great deal–for it is in using words together that we actually create their meaning and come to understand them.

Words are born when, in the individual mind, a concept or experience arises for which there is no adequate language, and that mind is stimulated to create a new vocalization to express it.  When such a new word or phrase stimulates and creates a similar state of mind in others, it can acquire a common meaning and usage. The appearance of new words (and the fading use and understanding of older ones) is associated, for good or ill, with new states of mind.  This forms part of the great chain of being—new concepts create words and words allow the formation of yet more concepts – and so on.  Neglected usage leads to a dying out of words and to the death throes of the meaning they express.  When usage of the telegraph disappeared, so also did the word fade from conversation.  Eventually people no longer could picture or experience a telegram.
This has been an essentially unplanned, spontaneous process throughout human history, with contributions from unknown men and women, and geniuses of the rank of Shakespeare. The capacity of words to invoke new modes of consciousness lies at the heart of Shelley’s assertion that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of humanity.


If certain realities are to be expressed or experienced at all, language must employ properties that are being lost through disuse.  Depth of meaning requires intensity, nuance, subtlety, intimation.  It does not require a special vocabulary, but a way of using words to point to a higher or more fundamental reality


Let us use the word depth itself to portray this.  To have depth is to have thickness, substance, hidden inwardness, as in the depths of the sea or depth of soul.  Yet it can be used to suggest a rich, open expansiveness, as in the depths of the night sky.  Depth refers to that which is unapparent to the superficial glance – the opposite of mere surface.  There is something about depth which resists expression in prosaic language, something that is elusive and demands at least a hint of the poetic.


The word ‘vulgar’ – equally rich and suggestive, but in a different fashion – almost speaks itself.  “What a vulgar man” can almost not be said without distaste and a touch of contempt.


‘Sublime’, aside from conveying the experience of delight beyond imagining, imparts a hint of loftiness, of being lifted out of oneself.  As in the word ‘depth’, ‘sublime’ cannot be quite touched and captured with the perceptions of sense.


The chief priest of ancient Rome was the Pontifex Maximus – literally ‘the greatest bridge builder’ – binding his culture to the realm of the gods.  The true role of the poet, the language and meaning maker, is to fashion a bridge between the everyday world and the realm of the spirit – a task largely abandoned in our time.












More than two centuries ago, Goethe achieved this task in invoking, in a few words, the archetype of his own time, and helped change the self-awareness of European humanity.


‘Two souls reside, alas, within my breast,

And each one from the other would be parted.

The one holds fast, in sturdy lust for love,

With clutching organs clinging to the world;

The other strongly rises from the gloom

To lofty fields of ancient heritage.’

FAUST,  Goethe







33. The Language of Depth in a World of Noise – Part I

(For context see Post 1)

You’re at a gathering of friends, family, and some strangers for a holiday dinner.  You have convivial feelings toward the others when you arrive.  As time passes, however, this is superseded by feelings of vacancy and restlessness, corresponding to the shallowness of what is said.  It is as if the others feel nothing of this distress – and this is painfully lonely for you.  The talk is of business, sports, idle gossip, consumer technology, films, and television.  Has it always been this way?  Could it ever have been otherwise?

We humans must have talk, sometimes in abundance, sometimes sparsely – but we must have it.  It must be articulated with words and phrases.  Its content has always varied in quality and depth due to culture, character and other circumstances.  When you wish to say something, especially when the element of depth is called for, you must have words to suggest and portray meaning, or have resort to creating new words to serve your purposes.  In our time, however, language has fallen under the evil spell of propaganda, advertising and, above all, technology – a spell which has drained from it the capacity to convey the element of depth and richness of meaning.  In propaganda, words like ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘justice’, ‘war’, ‘ally’, and ‘enemy’ lose their concrete references and serve to evoke vague mental images associated with approval or disapproval.  With advertising, words are digested into a thin gruel of references – ‘love’, ‘savings’, ‘bargain’, ‘fantastic’, ‘incredible’ – all perverted from their original meaning.  Technology has contracted the meaning of words via compression and reassignment – ‘text’, ‘memory’, ‘platform’, ‘apps’, ‘bug’, ‘chat room’, ‘emoticons’.

On the other hand, the language of depth, of inwardness, is that of the spiritual, ideal, non-sensual (sense perceptual) pole of existence.  The realm of depth is invisible and cannot be directly depicted by the sounds and sights of the physical world.  The mission of the arts– including the art of language–is to clothe the sense world with intimations of this otherwise invisible depth and meaning.

The mission of propaganda is to accrue political power; that of advertising, money power.  The role of technology is more obscure, seemingly growing endlessly and exponentially, with a drive and purpose of its own – with inhuman energy.  Why does any of this matter?

Human culture, human artifacts are not possible without true and substantial ideas – which call for the corresponding language. Limiting language to slogans, to trite formulae severely funnels the mind as to what can be thought and felt, bearing with it the sterilization of words.  A word like ‘intuition’, for example, in the hands of advertisers, becomes an empty shell, its meaning cauterized.  The ‘intuition’ referred to becomes only an implanted message to buy breakfast cereal, perfume, an SUV.  Degrading language through advertising, propaganda and technology has hollowed out humanity, and is leaving behind a semblance, a residue of formerly distinctly human life, which those who have preceded us would neither understand nor endure. Modern humanity is imprisoned by the ever-expanding anti-culture spawned by advertising, propaganda and technology, and is spiritually starved for truth and depth.  Many of us are inwardly suffocating for want of any access to the intangible, nutritive forces of some kind of higher life.  Think of the fading dimensions of soul that words like ‘intangible, allusive’, ‘lofty’, ‘sublime’ once gestured to.  Above all, our time has lost the bitter faculty for irony – that sense for the gulf between appearance and reality.


Propaganda Comrade: A really close brotherly friend and soul companion – or –

A fellow slave in a totalitarian state.


Patriot: One who has a self-sacrificing abiding love of their country – or –

An ignorant, chest-thumping yahoo


Homeland: Land of one’s birth – or –

A meaningless placeholder, as in Department of Homeland Security



Spirit: The ineffable, vital ingredient – or –

” Catch the Pepsi spirit”

Soul, alive, natural, value and all the other great, mysterious words – all corrupted and debased, to lubricate the gargantuan industrial cloacae of postmodern anti-culture.

If our words can only come from the soul-crushing triad of propaganda, advertising and the machine world, then thinking, feeling and expression of the element of depth and truth become dauntingly, monumentally difficult.



‘The everlasting universe of things

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,

Now dark–now glittering–now reflecting gloom

Now lending splendor, where from secret springs

The source of human thought its tribute brings

Of waters-with a sound but half its own…’

-Mont Blanc, Shelley



This is the language of sublimity and depth, touching on the mystery at the heart of things. Can our time hear these lines with any real feeling and understanding?  The secret springs of human thought have been dammed and diverted for industrial use.











32. Student Debt and Creativity

(For context see Post 1)


To become a human being requires an act of genius-the “acquisition” of language.  An activity must arise coordinating conceptions forming within the mind of the infant, with the ever-changing images of the sense world, and sound – to forge virtually infinite combinations of meaningful utterance.  What setting is most apt to nourish this great, primal act of education, emergent awareness and self-expression?  It is that of loving, freely given warmth and interest on the part of an adult – that is, a gift.  No contract is called for or possible in this setting, no a priori terms and conditions can be imposed.  The schooling for this greatest of subjects is free.  All other healthy education is, in large measure, a subordinate version of this fundamental pedagogy.


Presently in the United States, outstanding student loans total over one trillion dollars, nearly fivefold the total from a mere decade ago.  The terms of these loans are such that they cannot be defaulted upon, and collection methods and penalties are draconian.  They are handed out with abandon, with almost no regard to a realistic future capacity for repayment.  A greatly increased proportion of these loans are now for study in for-profit “institutions” – (think WalMart University).

The paragraphs above are statements of fact and are polar archetypes of culture and anticulture, of education and debt slavery.


The most productive way of funding education is as a gift.  Education most potently manifests itself in free exchange.  The most effective way of educating people is by appealing to their genuine interest and enthusiasm, rather than to their future material well-being and status, or their fear of future poverty.  This gift is the source of productive forces and new capital for all of society.  The evocation of talents and skills through education multiplies the investment of time and effort required many-fold.


Money debt and education are in tense contrast to one another.  Student debt parasitizes what should be a gift.  Interest, fees and penalties on student debt are essentially rents – tolls put in place to accrue money power.  Predatory expansion in credit for education has gone hand in hand with exploitive increases in tuition, and declining quality.  The result ultimately will be de facto debt slavery for the majority.

Student loans are especially pernicious because they are backed by the implacable, coercive power of the central state.  These debts would not have originated in the first place without government guarantees, which the lenders have bought and paid for through lobbyists, advertising and media domination.   Our masters and keepers have already seized on our language and concepts, to make the unnatural and unwise seem necessary – to sign over our future, virtually collateralized in blood, for the dubious benefit of a standard contemporary schooling; one endorsed by the naive parents and teachers who should be our protectors.  Current borrowers are living in a fool’s paradise – discounting the reality of the debtor’s day of reckoning, which is sure to come.
Propaganda, advertising and indifference by media have focused all attention on the failing borrowers as deadbeats, rather than on the originators of credit as predators.  This creates a network of illusion – a distortion of word meanings like: ‘education’, ‘value’, ‘owe’, ‘debt’, ‘obligation’, etc.; and drives a popular, moralistic hostility towards debtors.   In fact, the illusion that present arrangements in education are justified and necessary flows from these very organs of disinformation in the first place.


For the present circumstance to have arisen, total and integrated control of the information a borrower will get about the value (in money terms) of their prospective education has been required.  That is, the very idea of what an education is, the likely return on investment, the whole setting in which this takes place, is managed in a similarly illusory manner as the Global War on Terror.

Loans are marketed primarily to the most naive, needy and vulnerable, however, even the most knowledgeable student is backed into a corner and coerced into debt by the ever-expanding fees for education and dismal employment opportunities.

The government, corporations, (Too Big to Fail) financiers pay lip service to the picture of our young people as ‘the hope of the future’.  They must become ‘the best and the brightest’ so they can compete in the ‘global marketplace’.  So one must ask oneself, why then prey on them so severely?  Why allow all other sectors of society to default on debt through bankruptcy, but not our most vulnerable, and the bearers of the future well-being of our economy and society?  The answer is: that they can.  They are predators.  And students have not been in a position to defend themselves.


In some ways, none of this is new.  Elites have maneuvered the less powerful into debt slavery for thousands of years.  It is a kind of cannibalism that is attractive to a certain human type.  Its results are as pernicious and evil as ever – debt-engendered worry, fear and depression are mind killing, soul crushing, and isolating.  Perhaps the only answer is mass organizing by student debtors, and the collective repudiation of such debt, similar to the huge ongoing student strike in Quebec.





Hogarth, Debtor’s Prison




31. Neuroscience, Art and Free Will

(For context see Post 1)


Watch the following video carefully before reading this entry.



This experiment is extremely convincing.  The technicians reading the MRI screen could accurately predict the subject’s choice of button 6 seconds before the event, and well before the consciousness of choosing entered the mind of the subject.  In this case, unconscious forces precede and determine the supposedly conscious choice.


This experiment seems to demonstrate that free will is an illusion, but look at the task the subjects are asked to undertake.  The choice has no real substance.  They’re ‘choosing’ without any real content or context, without any meaning attaching to their choices.  There is no moral or aesthetic significance to this activity.  Is this an exhaustive picture of choosing?  Far from it.  What if the choices, instead of being dead and static, were complex and dynamic, that is, in movement?  What if the choices demanded a higher understanding, a rich conceptual content?  What if instantly you had to choose among a vast array of elements to create an effect, an artistic impression, as in a musical improvisation?  Further, what if such choosing produced a completely novel, original result, with a profound aesthetic effect?  No great artifact of human culture, whether an epic poem or a simple utensil, ever existed prior to its imaginative appearance in the creative mind of genius.


Real creativity cannot be reduced to a simple formula or a simple decision.  Look at the difference between the monotonic choice to be made in the experiment, as opposed to summoning all one’s energies in creating or experiencing a work of art.  From this perspective, it is self-evident that there is a free, conscious element of mastery in all art worthy of the name.


The artist begins with basic materials (color, tone, language) and accepted ideas (like the rules of harmony in Western music).  The artist must have the ability to form a central purpose or conception, and then enlist the elements proper to his art, to serve this ideal.


What is the unstated task of real art?  It is to conjure, that is, to produce profound changes in consciousness, to magically render the familiar and ordinary strange, exotic, elevating, appalling, deep, and richly ironic or absurd.  It must cast a spell, and do this using unenchanted raw material, as in the case of the sounds and word meanings Shakespeare employed in these lines from ‘The Tempest’


Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.



What are the vital tools of artistic creation and re-creation (that is in the enjoyment of art)?


– Improvisation

– Excellence of technique

– Tolerance for polarity and ambiguity

– Capacity for subtlety and intimation

– Inwardness, the element of depth

– Capacity to be aware of and synthesize many elements

– Taste (elusive, but real)

– The magisterial power to act out of these capacities (free creation out of nothing.)


Art arises in a rich context, incapable of being rendered into formulae or software.  (You cannot Photoshop your way to artistic greatness.)  It is certainly the case that much in art, most especially that which is called inspiration, rises out of subconscious regions in the soul of its creator.


Were it possible to scan the brain of someone in the act of genuine creation, the factors involved – the array of choices being made, material included or discarded – would entirely destroy the possibility of establishing a predictable chain of cause and effect.  No technician could scan the brain of a Beethoven in full maturity, and predict the next tonal gesture, seconds before it came to the conscious mind of the Master.



Do you really think that in your moments of highest understanding you are simply registering the conscious outcome of a pre-computed result?


30.The Hazards of our Evolutionary Heritage

(For context see Post 1)






It is commonplace to acknowledge that the sum of human activity on the earth is destroying the basis for our own life and that of other organisms. This is a recent development.  The capacity to degrade the living systems of the earth has grown out of the isolation, refinement and intensification of a certain kind of thinking.  The power of thought itself is the source of mechanical invention, industrial production and mass consumption.  (All machines have first arisen as thoughts in the heads of men.)   This power has not only unleashed death-forces on a vast scale, it has also led to the destruction of our aesthetic environment.  (The postmodern world is brutally ugly.)  As the central instrument for technical creation and control of the products and forces of nature, abstract, mechanistic thinking has developed at a furious rate for the last two centuries, overshadowing and suppressing more profound elements of the life of soul.


The deeper strata of human life, from which arise the great manifestations of culture, depend upon an element of depth, of living power in the thoughts, feelings and deeds of human beings.  Without the element of depth in thinking, feeling and willing, there can be no wisdom (“Where there is no wisdom, the people perish” – Proverbs)


Science and technology arose from the broader human culture but, in a way, have detached themselves from it – and now dominate it completely.  The design of a machine or a logical system has nothing of instinctual darkness about it.  All is surveyable in clear concepts, “in the light of day”.  This is not the case with the life of feeling or impulses of will – love and enmity, desire and repulsion, fear and courage.  They rise up, so to speak, out of the depths of our inner life.  Thinking and its products are at the service of these forces, which emerge from the hidden regions of our common human nature.  The depredations of global capitalism, for example, driven by greed, by pathological appetite, are only possible by appropriating these products of thought.


These are self-reinforcing feedbacks.  The power of science and technology, born out of thought, works on and, in turn, is worked upon by these deeper forces of our nature.

This is at the heart of the maddening tragedy of postmodern anti-culture.  Whatever else we are, we humans are animals.  We are not the outcome of a special creation.  Our animal nature, manifest in peculiarly human ways, is an expression of an evolutionary legacy, many ages in the making.  The buying, selling, consuming, hedonistic world of modern production and marketing-driven economic life parasitizes this legacy, without regard to the consequences (the “externalities”).  It has led us into a cul-de-sac that threatens our survival.







Our primitive instincts (thirst, hunger, sexual desire, temperature regulation and others) are only a small part of our evolved drives.  There are many evolutionary adaptations we never think about or notice.  These adaptations emerged and supported our survival under conditions infinitely remote from those of modern life.  When we live out these patterns we are acting out ancient archetypes of feeling and behavior.


Some of these innate tendencies are:

1. Impulsiveness, that is, the tendency to discount the future in preference for immediate satisfaction.  (It appears to have aided the ancestral hunter-gatherer in obtaining nutrition.) This is heavily manipulated by all forms of advertising.


2. Novelty and reward seeking, curiosity.  (Also supported food gathering.)  Endlessly exploited in software development.


3. Habituation. Almost any repeated actions or stimuli are taken up into patterned, compelling (that is, unfree, coerced) states of mind and action.  (Habituation is and was vital for survival – stalking prey, lighting a fire and, now, driving a car.)  Habit is one of the great unrecognized pillars of human life and is easily manipulated.  At its worst, this can express itself as the habitual impulse to consume, like a rat repeatedly pressing a bar to receive a food pellet.


4. Desire for status (power) within a group.


5. Mimicry.  The tendency to feel and act in imitation of others is deeply ingrained.  It is also vital to all learning.   For example, learning language without mimicry is inconceivable.


6. Sociability.  We have an innate tendency to be integrated into a group.  (Our forbears had a vital need to band together in order to survive and flourish.)


7. The desire for meaning (salience).  The need to organize the world into more and less important phenomena, such as threats and opportunities.  (For example, noticing ripe berries on a bush, but avoiding the thorns.)  In the postmodern anti-culture, this can appear as strong inducements to confer undue meaning on trivialities, as in the hobbyist and collector, fads and manias.


8. Desire for orientation.  We have a strong desire to “know where we stand”

All these innate evolved traits are with us regardless of our background. Their form and content vary with culture, education and experience, but the tendencies are simply part of the fabric of what and who we are.  We act out these ancient adaptations.  To the extent this is so, we are “adaptation executors”–we carry out (“execute”) a once survival-enhancing pattern (adaptation) from our evolutionary past.  The pathetic aspect of this is not that we are predisposed in so many ways by these adaptive patterns, but that they have been hijacked and perverted into the world of  “Idiocracy” (2006 film ). We are swamped by technology-powered advertising and propaganda, seamlessly delivered in a virtually constant stream, inflicted on us from the basest, most evil motives.


Advertising and propaganda always address us as if we were free beings.  There is a universal human aversion to being regarded as a slave, as the instrument of the will of another, and it flatters us to be treated as if we were acting out of our own being.   This can be seen as a variant of the drive for status and recognition, but it feels like the drive to be a free, autonomous agent, to have absolute personal dignity.  Here there is a great irony.  It is self-evident from the calamitous, slavish mass conformity and consumption of postmodern life, that there is something amiss here, a great gulf between a desired and imagined state of affairs, and reality.


If this pretended autonomy were actually possible, what would it look like?  In a sense it would mean, by degrees, becoming less “adaptation executors” of our inherited endowment and acting on our own behalf, as a species unto ourselves – as true individuals.   We would use our faculties to determine that which truly suited us and how we might obtain it.  We would determine our own “fitness” (what genuinely pleased us most, not the instinctive program of our evolutionary endowment.)  We would thus maximize our own genuine well-being and would be creative self-guiding individuals rather than “adaptation executors” alone.  (To be truly human is to be both.)

This is a strange issue to talk about. At the heart of it is the perplexing idea of free-will, which we will address in a subsequent post (Neuroscience and free-will). What would it be like, even partially, to break free of the overwhelming stream of present coercion and inducements in order to think our own thoughts, refresh and revivify our feeling life, and enliven our will? What could even begin to make that possible?

One cannot simply refuse to be an “adaptation executor”–the listed predilections are inevitably part of who and what we are. They must be schooled and guided through the cultivation of different tendencies, through a higher life of the soul.


Think of the archetypal example of Socrates, walking barefoot through the streets of 5th century B.C. Athens, striving for a conception of truth and virtue and, through conversation, inviting his reluctant fellow citizens to accompany him.


29. Rat Park and the Abyss of Postmodern Life

(For context see Post 1)

Pity the poor rats.  They are the object of fear and hostility on the part of human beings and are consumed by the many millions in laboratory experiments. One most unusual experiment, known as “Rat Park”, was a study of morphine addiction.  Rats housed in laboratory cages alone and without stimulation were easily addicted to the opiate. Other rats lived socially, in a colony in “Rat Park”, a sort of rat paradise with large open spaces, woodland mural walls, deep cedar bedding and plenty of things that amuse rats – like treadmills, tunnels and caves. These rats were not susceptible to addiction.  When given a choice, they rejected morphine-laced water, even when made especially palatable with sugar. Addicted, isolated rats, when introduced into the “rat park” colony, quickly came to avoid morphine-laced water and put themselves through physical withdrawal in order to enjoy their new world.

Rats, like us, are social creatures– confining them in isolation cells is a form of torture.  A human in such a hell would presumably turn to anything that would relieve their agony.  Many human beings, condemned to a life in sheet-rock caves, more and more alone, with the death-glow of their electronic screens bathing them, are in a narcotized state similar to the rats withheld from Rat Park – wasting away in isolation cages.

Opiate addiction is growing in the U.S. on a staggering scale.  In 2011 there were over 37,000 deaths from overdose, more than from traffic accidents.  Many of the new recruits to addiction are the children of the infinitely tedious, spiritually void suburbs and exurbs of this country. The most vulnerable people are those with sensitive melancholic temperaments, who often suffer depression or forms of bipolar disorder precisely because of their caged environment, well depicted in such films as ‘Gummo’ and ‘Ghost World’.  And yet this temperament is fundamental to those states of mind that make for true human culture-like poetry, music and art.

We are not rats. But the conditions of our existence greatly influence what we can and cannot do, and what we feel. Humans, unlike rats, have additional spiritual needs, needs pertaining to the experience of being an individual personality – a self that, in us, we call “I”.    This aspect of ourselves longs for meaning and purpose, and above all creative power, for a higher life.  This is the source of all truly great art, music, architecture and literature.  But without a physical and social world suited to certain basics of our nature, this higher life of humanity cannot unfold itself.  A remarkable testimony to this effect can be found in Carl Jung’s reply to a letter from Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

His remarks are about the life of the spirit and are not a dogmatic endorsement of any conception of a deity.

Dear Mr. W.

Your letter has been very welcome indeed.

I had no news from Rowland H. anymore and often wondered what has been his fate. Our conversation which he has adequately reported to you had an aspect of which he did not know. The reason that I could not tell him everything was that those days I had to be exceedingly careful of what I said. I had found out that I was misunderstood in every possible way. Thus I was very careful when I talked to Rowland H. But what I really thought about was the result of many experiences with men of his kind.

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.*

How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days?

The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.

I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouses so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.

These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation to Rowland H., but I am risking it with you because I conclude from your very decent and honest letter that you have acquired a point of view above the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism.

You see, “alcohol” in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

Thanking you again for your kind letter.

I remain

Yours sincerely

C. G. Jung

*”As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Psalms 42:1)

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. (Alternative translation)

C.G. Jung

Finally, Samuel Johnson on the roots of addiction:

I called on Dr. Johnson one morning, when Mrs. Williams, the blind lady, was conversing with him. She was telling him where she had dined the day before. “There were several gentlemen there,” said she, “and when some of them came to the tea‑table, I found that there had been a good deal of hard drinking.” She closed this observation with a common and trite moral reflection; which, indeed, is very ill‑founded, and does great injustice to animals ‑‑ “I wonder what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves.” “I wonder, Madam,” replied the Doctor, “that you have not penetration to see the strong inducement to this excess; for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Anecdotes of the Revd. Percival Stockdale; collected in “Johnsonian Miscellanies,” edited by G.B. Hill.

Samuel Johnson