Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gods that failed

The French have an expression, les phares, the lighthouses, for luminaries and ideas that serve to guide and inspire. Over the years I have been drawn to a number of such sources, only to find, at the end of the day, that their light is but feeble. This realization takes place, I suppose, largely unconsciously and gradually: one day I wake up to find that such and such a figure or set of ideas is not as important to me as I thought.

These realizations have a material counterpart, for I am constantly sifting through my library, to locate items that I feel I can dispense with. Some go into a form of purgatory at a storage facility I maintain nearby; others are simply banished, to be given to a dear friend who is a book dealer.

At all events, through these dual processes--mental estrangement and physical banishment--I have identified four such dimmed lighthouses. In summary they are as follows.

1) The occult. I have never had any faith in conjuring spirits, hexagrams, harmonic convergence, or any such beliefs. However, in studying the history of avant-garde art, I have had to confront the fact that some innovators did find inspiration in the occult. For example, the three major founders of abstract painting--Vassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, and Piet Mondrian--were all, at one time or another, devotees of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy. Similar allegiances are found among prominent writers, from William Butler Yeats to Hermann Hesse. Recently, a German scholar has found evidence of such affinities in the later work of F. T. Marinetti; as the founder of Futurism, one would never have suspected the Italian writer of such divagations.

As a kid growing up in Southern California, I was aware of the Hindu gurus, headed by Krishnamurti, who had settled there. The Brit expats, such as Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood, seemed particularly susceptible to this attraction. Later came the Counterculture, including the brief connection of the Beatles with the export version of popular Hinduism.

Historical honesty compels one to acknowledge the maieutic effect of such pseudodisciplines. They served as "life lies," in Ibsen's sense--fantasies that served to bolster creativity, whatever their actual truth value. But now that I no longer called to provide classroom analysis in connection with my courses on modernism, I have dispensed with the need to keep up with this material. So the writings of Blavatsky and company are slated to go off to the storage facility. (Not though. Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Yeats, whom I still revere.)

2. Freud and psychoanalyis. Like many people who came of age in the 1950s, I felt pressure to undergo "analysis." Fortunately, I resisted. Even before the current wave of critiques of psychoanalysis appeared, I came across an empirical study by H. J. Eysenck, who showed that this rubbish had no therapeutic efficacy at all. In a controled study, people who had received no treatment whatever did better than those who submitted to prolonged and expensive exposure to the shrinks.

Over the years I have dread many critiques of psychoanalysis. The universal conclusion is that it is simply a crock of you know what, without any scientific credibility whatever. Freud and Blavatsky--they are much the same.

3. Marxism. As I have explained elsewhere, I was raised in a Marxist household. By thinking and reading, I was able to break free of this tutelage in my mid teens. During the 1970s I felt the need to revisit this stuff, what with Marcuse, Gramsci, Althusser, e tutti quanti. In due course, this infatuation faded among the intellectuals. Who reads these old duffers now? Good riddance!

4. Sociology. This dismal science may be regarded as the confluence of Freud and Marx. As an undergraduate I fell in with some students who were majoring in social science, either sociology or anthropology. For a time I was under the sway of their view that these two disciplines comprised all we need to know about human beings.

Nowadays, I feel that anthropology is somewhat unjustly neglected, as people in the "developing countries" hasten to discard tradition and to acquire a plenitude of televisions, computers, cell phones, and so forth. But I don't miss sociology at all, with its appalling jargon, inherent imprecision, and poorly concealed political agendas.

Well, that's enough intellectual house-cleaning for one evening.



Blogger Stephen said...

"Over the years I have dread many critiques of psychoanalysis":
a Freudian slip?

Though I don't think Freud mapped the unconscious, I think he rightly called attention to its reality.

I doubt that sociology was ever a "god" in the sense of Freud or Marx, and is certainly not their union (that would be Marcuse,who was not a sociologist). Both Durkheim and Weber sought to provide alternatives to Marxism (and were certainly uninfluenced by Freud!!! and in Durkheim's case profoundly antithetitical to any kind of psychological explanations), The American founders were unaware of Marx and Freud and dubious about the efficacy of the reformists. A later generation focused on the unanticipated consequences of social engineering.

9:39 AM  

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