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Thursday, January 28, 2010

We must first harrow. Then may we sow.

An excellent essay by 'Kristor,' posted on Lawrence Auster's 'View From The Right' blog: The genesis of gnosticism

When I read this entry, "Cameron's cinematic liberal paradise makes viewers hate reality," I got to thinking about Gnosticism and the movies, and came up with a few things.
When I was a teenager Jeremiah Johnson had much the same effect on me that Avatar seems to be having on these people. The purity and beauty, and the raw adventure of his life as a mountain man appealed to me enormously. Like Johnson, I wanted to leave civilization behind and venture off alone into the wilderness. So I did. Like him, I discovered that, while less greasy and noisy than cities, the wilderness is no less beset with tragedy, no less painful or messy. Going into the wilderness doesn't solve anything. That's the difference between Jeremiah Johnson and Avatar. The former does not sugar coat reality, does not make the Indians or the Mountain Men inherently nobler than the men of the town. It is, in fact, a Greek tragedy, its dramatic engine a conflict between legitimate moral imperatives that force themselves upon Johnson and the other dramatis personae. All are driven by a vision of what is right and good, and by the furies unleashed by the conflict between mutually contradictory goods, by reverence, love, vengeance, retribution and honor, to a universally fatal end.

You wrote that Avatar's gnosticism is something new. But really it isn't. Avatar recapitulates a trope so hackworn in Hollywood that it has become venerable, and obeisance in its direction almost obligatory in movies set anywhere but the present day ironic cosmopolitan West: evil industrial civilization of our forefathers versus innocent noble savages. One of the earliest instances of the theme was the movie Mad Max, with Mel Gibson as a post-apocalyptic loner, a lethal, cynical former good guy who has been disillusioned by the collapse of the civilization he once defended, and is now out for himself alone. He comes upon a band of inept and pacific hippies clad in white burlap, who have cadged together a commune in the middle of the wilderness. But they are bedeviled by a band of selfish depraved unwashed outlaws who all wear black leather and studs, drive tractor-trailers and armored Harleys, and who use 50 caliber machine guns against the breech-loading antiques of the hapless hippies. Mad Max is an outlaw like the bad guys: he doesn't wash, and he wears black leather and studs, drives a muscle car and wields shotguns. He is not a hippie. But he has a code of honor, that leads him to befriend the hippies, and so against overwhelming odds he utterly defeats the bad guys. Then he becomes king, or something; or else disappears again into the wilderness.

This theme has been done to death, particularly by Kevin Costner, who reprises it in most of his movies. Dances with Wolves is an archetype of the genre. Matrix descended to the same pathetic depths after an inspired opening (massive orgiastic dance of the burlap-clad hippies deep in their enlightened underground city as the evil machines inexorably approach). Beware when you see a bunch of actors in burlap, because it almost always portends a formulaic play on this decrepit theme. Another sure tipoff: Mad Max casts a jaundiced eye on the beta villagers in their simple happy dance as outlaw bad guys thunder ever nearer. Other instances: The Mission (DeNiro is Mad Max); The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood is Mad Max); Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman is Mad Max); The Patriot and Braveheart (Mad Max is Mad Max).

OK. What does this theme, in its relentless stultifying recurrence in our popular culture, say about us? This is where my thinking started. You may find that in what follows I have gone a saltation too far, but bear with me.

To begin at the beginning, I think Voegelin is not quite right in arguing that gnosticism stems in the first instance from a realization that God has withdrawn from the world, or that he utterly transcends it. Rather, it stems from a feeling that the world has somehow or other been disenchanted. Its first historical roots do indeed lie in the collapse of the innocent paganism that first sustained our ancestors, for whom the whole world was suffused by spirits. But this same feeling of disenchantment and meaninglessness today afflicts most moderns, who have never thought as pagans. They find life disenchanted and meaningless, not because the gods, dryads and hamadryads don't exist, but because the transcendent God of monotheism doesn't exist. So it isn't transcendence per se that is the problem, but disenchantment. And the disenchantment arises because the patrimonial religion has for them become incredible, or incomprehensible. So long as that religion is credible, and has power to constrain and organize men's thoughts and feelings, gnosticism will gain little traction.

All human beings long for Eden, and we can't have it. This is the basic existential problem we all face; no other problem is more fundamental. We long for a world where things are as they should be, and lo we live in a world where they are not. In our early childhood--for those of us fortunate enough to have had a reasonably good one--we lived for a time in Eden. Our father and mother loved us, and each other; there was harmony in the home, and warmth; we did as we were told, and behold it was good. Soon enough, and too soon, we found out that not all is so well with the world as we had thought. There are mean dogs, and bullies, and Mummy and Daddy fight, and we must go out alone into the cold to school. And we do not always as we are told. This process of loss and compounding disaster continues until we are dead, with a brief interlude wherein--for those of us who are fortunate--we recapitulate it vicariously with our own children.

For all but the most sheltered children, the disillusionment of our innocence is complete by the time we reach adolescence. There are two possible responses to this adolescent discovery. Either we conclude that the world is inherently evil, deficient, worthless, or that we are ourselves the source of the problem. The latter is rare among the young, naturally enough; for looking back, the adolescent can clearly see that he bears no responsibility for the mess in which he has landed. The mess has, rather, been inflicted upon him undeservedly. The whole thing is deeply unfair. So most of us conclude that the fault of the world is the world's fault. In particular, we conclude that the basic problem is embodied in our parents, and in the whole system of things, the weltanschauung and institutions, the customs and traditions, that they represent, practice, and have inculcated in us. Thus begins the adolescent rebellion.

The adolescent rebel rejects the world and all its evils and messy compromises. The system of his elders has not succeeded in banishing evil from the world, so he rejects that, too, root and branch. He rejects their gods; he rejects their very categories of thought. In the limit, he rejects thought altogether. He becomes a nominalist, not just with respect to the transcendent reliability and appropriateness of his inherited folkways, but with respect to the very notions of goodness, truth, and beauty. He rejects the Limit, and especially the limit of logical compossibility, that prevents him from having his cake and eating it too (or, e.g., from making the Grand Canyon both pristine and wheelchair accessible). He wants all possible goods, now, without limit, to the max; and he wants no tragedy in life. Finally, he rejects the limit of form: he rejects formality in art, dress, sex, work, politics, worship, diction, comportment, station, and so forth; and with them, he rejects beauty, truth, order, goodness, for all of them are revealed to the laser eye of his skepticism as merely conventional, thus false and "inauthentic," and therefore evil. His art is "transgressive" or aleatory; the great theme of his literature is rebellion, revolution, the outlaw and the pervert--sex, death, and finally death by sex.

But the rejection of the patrimonial order leads to radical uncertainty about everything. Life is perilous for everyone, but for the nominalist rebel there is no transcendent order that can be relied upon to govern and set things finally right, just and true, in terms of which the things that now seem so wrong and painful may therefore be understood as falling toward their due and proper Providential order. For the nominalist, as for everyone, nothing in life is really certain; but for the nominalist, nothing in life is reliably good, either. Even worse, the nominalist rebel can rely on no one but himself. So he turns to a program of revolutionary action. He becomes a Pelagian Utopian [one who believes that moral perfection through human action is attainable in this life without the assistance of divine grace], out to save the world, building proud towers that cannot reach to Heaven. Even nihilist anarchists and atheists, who insist that in reality nothing matters, work to increase the influence of their doctrines.

All societies have had to deal with these tendencies toward nominalism, anarchism, and nihilism in their adolescents. Traditional societies dealt with them by forcing all their young through traumatic rites of passage in which they were stripped of their adolescence, and from which they emerged as mature exponents and defenders of their patrimonial tradition--as men, and women. These rites vary greatly from one group to another, but wherever they are effective, it is because the adults all give their own credence to the ontology and morality they have themselves inherited from their forbears. Where adults are confident in their patrimonial Limit, in all its formal expressions, and impose it therefore consistently and rigorously upon their children from an early age, the full-blown adolescent revolt is unthinkable. The adolescent is then, rather, eager to assume the mantle of full adulthood, of full mature participation in the maintenance of the sacred order that in the eyes of all his people is so important to the life of the whole world. For we all crave and seek order in our experience, children most of all. The discovery of the limit and order of the world is after all the forecondition of survival and prosperity.

In many societies, the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood--at least for boys--takes the form of the walkabout, the solo: the youngster ventures forth alone beyond the pale, there to test himself against the wilderness, and to find his peculiar genius. Once he has found it, the prodigal son may return, to enrich the tradition of his people with the contribution of his own heroic journey. As a man, tested and often blooded in combat, he has become himself one of the heroes that peopled the legends of his childhood.

But what happens when the grownups begin to doubt their own story? They fail to live as if it were true, fail to teach their children that it is true, fail fully to want their children to grow up believing it is true, or to follow it. The rite of passage then becomes an empty form; a lie. And no one is fooled by such empty gestures. Indeed, they eventually elicit contempt, adding fuel to the adolescent fire consuming all social forms. The young son may then never wander out beyond the pale. In that case, he becomes a hapless hippie, clad in burlap and fumbling with his pathetic Garand. He becomes, in the language of Game, a beta, or worse. But some young men, goaded mercilessly by their animal spirits, may wander out beyond the pale, and never come back. They become rogues, outlaws, alpha males: they become Mad Max. Mad Max is an adolescent who has never fully grown up, who has begun his rite of passage, but never finished. He has never fully accepted, or else has explicitly rejected, the limits and responsibilities of manhood in full; has never let himself be tied down by obligations to wife, family, people. He has never bought the story.

Interestingly, it is precisely the young men who are ready to go on Walkabout that female adolescents, who have not yet themselves undergone their rite of passage to womanhood, are programmed to find attractive, for such adolescent males are in their own age cohort, and offer them the best chance of long term protection--provided they finish the passage to manhood. Men and women today have never finished growing up. So, far into their third and fourth decades of life, the women act like adolescent girls, and the men act like adolescent boys. The women go for the masculine hero types, the Mad Max alpha males; the men go for the nubile, perky young women.

Even without a vibrant traditional society to push us through a traumatic rite of passage, the exigencies of life generally provide all the trauma we could ask for, and more. So we do eventually grow up. As we grow we sooner or later learn that the world is not a movie about us (having children of our own often sparks this realization). We learn that the adolescent's feeling that he has been unfairly plunged into a horrible situation is simply inapposite, for the world is what it is, regardless of what we want. The mature adult knows that the world has not been done to him; if he is wise, he realizes indeed that, on the contrary, it has been done, in part, for him. He will be what he would be, and the world is provided to him as the proscenium for his decision. The world is not unfair. It is, rather, pitilessly just, logical, ordered (logic and justice have to be pitiless or they can't be ordered; can't be just or logical). We grow more conservative as we age because in living we learn more and more about the world, which everywhere conserves order.

The adult, then, realizes that the great existential problem of man is, not the world's disorder, but his own; not the evil of the world, but his own sinfulness. He realizes that the problem with his life is ... himself. So he takes responsibility. He works to amend his life, and to turn and live toward God. Further, he takes responsibility for those he loves. Only thus is his predicament as a mundane creature ever resolved. He lives in the world, but is less about it. So he transcends his accidents.

If what I've said so far about a sound patriomonial culture and the transition to adulthood within that culture is correct, then it is the case gnosticism flowers when a patrimonial religion has somehow weakened or failed, or lost its popular credence. Gnosticism is an attempt to find a solution to the social crisis brough on by the failure of the patrimonial religion. Most of its products are sports, mere incoherent heresies, such as the wild Gnostic sects of the early centuries AD. But often the wild experimentation and social chaos characteristic of such eras opens social room for a new order that transcends the patrimonial order without negating it, as Christianity transcended and carried forward--or, as the earliest Christians thought, revivified and fulfilled--the religion of Judah.

What, then, is to be done? How can the world be re-enchanted, and a durable social order restored? There is only one way. The philosophical credentials of religious belief--which means, in the West, Christianity--must be popularly rehabilitated. Only when most people admit that Christianity is philosophically respectable can our patrimonial ontology and morality hope for a renascence. Only after such a renascence can the young grow up admiring the vision of order and beauty that their parents also forthrightly admire. Only thus will the young ever give credence to that vision.

Perhaps the most acute perversity of our perverse age is that the multitudes who criticize or reject Christianity on philosophical grounds know almost nothing either about Christianity or philosophy. Only thus could they bring themselves to embrace incoherent, self-refuting doctrines such as nominalism or materialism. The first step, then, of a Traditionalist apologetics must be to make that incoherence explicit and unmistakable. We must first harrow. Then may we sow.

8 comments:

AWA said...

Almost a St. Dawquinus, referencing pitiless logic of the world via the theistic understanding of.

This was a good read - a Shakespearian way of describing why the West is "slouching towards Gomorrah".

"Finally, he rejects the limit of form: he rejects formality in art, dress, sex, work, politics, worship, diction, comportment, station, and so forth; and with them, he rejects beauty, truth, order, goodness, for all of them are revealed to the laser eye of his skepticism as merely conventional, thus false and "inauthentic," and therefore evil."

Always great how those who reject the theistic understanding of "good" never get around to ditching their reflexive reaction to perceived "evils" - real, imagined, or misconstrued.

Ilíon said...

AWA: "Always great how those who reject the theistic understanding of "good" never get around to ditching their reflexive reaction to perceived "evils" - real, imagined, or misconstrued."

The "Problem of Evil" (also called the "Problem of Pain") is really rather jejune. The *real* problem to be explained is the reality of The Good.

Ilíon said...

On the original site, 'Gintas' comments:
"There's something that Kristor doesn't mention explicitly, although it suffuses his essay. The disenchantment we find isn't something we just discover at adolescence--we are helped along into it by most of our culture, the schools especially. Disenchantment is a way of life right from birth. And we are told that the feeling of disenchantment we have is a good thing. I think that at adolescence one discovers his utter alienation from his own society. It's not that he's disenchanted, but he realizes he hates it. This alienation/hate generates an energy in a person that is harnessed easily for cultural revolution."

To which I say: indeed. I noticed this as a child in the public schools; I noticed and understood that I was being indoctrinated to hate and despise my own parents.

There is no requirement that adolescents rebel against their families and their wider society. Sure, there will alwaus be a few who do, but the vast majority of it is because they have been carefully *taught* that they will and must be surly, disrespectful and rebellious.

MK said...

I couldn't have said it better, but i share your dislike and contempt of avatar, nice graphics, but not much else.

AWA said...

A comment that disagreed with Kristor's essay apparently, which was interesting:

"Genuine Gnosticism, I believe, arises when the God of the Covenant (Christian, Jewish or even Muslim--the Shi'a) is seen to have broken the Covenant and is rejected as an imposter, a low demiurge who keeps the world in ignorance. The true God is then posited as radically transcendent, revealing himself to the few pneumatic (truly spiritual) souls through a Gnostic messenger bearing Gnosis (knowledge) in the form of revealing to the few their true identity as well as providing them with the magical keys to escape this lower world and return to the true God."

In other words, it's the Antichrist 3-Step Program to Personal Fulfillment and World Domination.

"Nazism was a form of modern Gnosticism, as was Jewish Sabbatianism, not to mention the Enlightenment itself..."

The Bar Kokhva Revolt - the final nail in Israel's coffin under the Roman Empire - seems to have been something like this to some degree: The mystical "Son of the Star" leading the nation into a geopolitical war against an occupying heathen power, without recourse to revelation (other than rabbis like Akiva saying "Wellll, he *could* be the Messiah, maybe...").

Although I may be wrong on this - the Romans pulled quite a few faux pas' of their own, after all, and probably had this kind of thing coming to them inevitably. Getting their just desserts, seems... Or deserts, whichever one.

AWA said...

"To which I say: indeed. I noticed this as a child in the public schools; I noticed and understood that I was being indoctrinated to hate and despise my own parents."

See what tolerance the Dewey post-modern educational tradition has for anything that doesn't fit its own framework? "How could you raise or teach your children on Talmudi... I mean, *Christian* barbarism? How daaaare you...." etc.

No wonder most of America has been reluctant to get on, say, the evolution or socialist bandwagon - they've suspected for years that something fishy's been going on in the education system, even if they didn't have the wherewithall to root it out and critique it.

And, no surprise which demographic is portrayed as reactionary and ignorant in the media, a'la Inheret the Wind stereotypes...

"There is no requirement that adolescents rebel against their families and their wider society. Sure, there will alwaus be a few who do, but the vast majority of it is because they have been carefully *taught* that they will and must be surly, disrespectful and rebellious."

But what will record execs and Hollywood producers do if their main feedba... eh, demographic - decides to become respectful and decent, thus not consuming hiphop or Michael Bey films on a multi-million regular basis?

You can see the dilemma the silversmiths would be in if the idol industry were ever to drop off suddenly.

AWA said...

Offhand, what do you recall from the educational system teaching you about being disrespectful to parents/authority figures?

Ilíon said...

AWA: "Offhand, what do you recall from the educational system teaching you about being disrespectful to parents/authority figures?"

Well, you have to keep in mind that school was a long time ago for me (I'm 52).

Also, the indoctrination tended to be subtle (subtle works best); I think most of the indoctrination was not done consciously. That is, while a very few of the teachers might have been leftists (and certainly were in college), I think must were just regular people teaching as they were taught to teach (by their Deweyite teachers), being themselves subverted.

As a general thing, the whole "question authority" mindset that the schools seek to instill in children is aimed at subverting our traditional society and understandings and relationships. And, as I mentioned previously, the schools spend a lot of time teaching kids that they're expected to be surly, unappreciative and rebellious.


But, two specific instances do come to mind:

In first grade (this would have been the '63-'64 school year), while preparing to "teach" us by showing us a movie, the teacher offhandedly told us that ours was the most intelligent and best educated generation that had ever lived. I silently rejected the assertion on the spot, and thought here silly for having made it. But, the point is that most kids are going to hear: "You're smarter than your parents, and you know more than your parents."

In 11th or 12th grade, in an elective English class (it was Greek mythology, but all Humanities type classes were grouped under 'English'), the teacher offhandedly remarked something to the effect that "By this time [the early-Classical period or Sophocles, etc] no one actually believed the ancient myths of their ancestors ... kind of like the Bible, today."

What surprised me (even at the time) was not that she said that, but that most of the other students in the class, whom I hadn't thought particularly cared for religious matters, reacted very negatively to the assertion.