29. Rat Park and the Abyss of Postmodern Life

by Culture and Anti Culture

(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