"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Human Nature, Sexual Dynamics, And The Import Of History–Time To Disengage From Politics And Temporal Concerns

Yes, we live in troubled times.  No one would have thought that the cradle of democracy would have produced such offspring.

And who would have thought that after ‘The End of History’ – the finality of the Cold War and the resurgent supremacy of Liberal Democracy – that  the likes of Bashir el-Assad, the Ayatollahs, Kim Jong-Un, and Vladimir Putin would be ascendant?

Had anyone been paying attention to the Balkans – how long-repressed antipathies, hostilities, and resentments would resurface unmitigated after 50 years – they would not have been surprised at the violent emergence of ethnic and religious animosities. 

Why is it a surprise that radical nationalist populism is sweeping Europe and the United States?  How is it that anyone paying attention could have neglected the rising resentment of the middle class –the class marginalized by progressive insult and insistent interventionist programs to neuter traditional religion and family values?

Perhaps; but a longer perspective of history belies the anxiety of the moment.  Kings, queens, courtiers, and the aristocratic elites of Europe, India, and China have always behaved in a patriarchal, self-interested, and aggressively territorial ways.  There is nothing new in the rise of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, or Marine Le Pen. 

Bourbon royalty wanted nothing to do with rabble and paid for their disdain at the guillotine.  Trump, Le Pen, and Putin want the same heads and the same revolution.

With the exception of Putin who, it would seem, would be quite happy to assume the royal throne of the Tsars, the rest of Europe and America is restive, angry, and in the mood for dramatic democratic reform.

The world it seems has never been in such chaotic flux.  The very foundations of Western civilization – liberal democracy, Enlightenment principles of rationality, dispassionate inquiry, and logic – seem to be disassembling.  There are no longer any absolutes – the Bible, the Church, or the received wisdom of the French and American Revolutions – and an individualistic, self-centered, me-positivist culture is in its ascendancy.

Of course nothing could be further from the truth.  Historians have known for centuries that history not only repeats itself but does so in predictable, repetitive patterns.  The cycles of aristocracy-democracy, populism-autocracy, nationalism-internationalism have repeated themselves over and over and so frequently and predictably, that they yawn at every ‘new’ emergence of the same old things.

Social scientists have noted since the beginning of their discipline that human societies do not change.  They exhibit the same expressions of self-interest, territorialism, and hegemonic  demands as  every cultural era before them.

Social psychologists have understood since Oedipus that human nature rules human action.  We all are governed by the same genes that propel us to jealousy, suspicion, hatred, and internal homogeneity. 

The question, then, is why the angst, the dislocation, and the frustration?  Why is it that in full consideration of history we still take umbrage at political venality and  sabre-rattling  nationalism?
The works of Conrad Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, D.H. Lawrence and many others have given us reason to pay no mind to temporal, inane concerns.  Gudrun, Ursula, Birkin, and Gerald have little concern for events, nor for public consideration of them.  They are only concerned about themselves.

Neither Gudrun, her sister, nor their male friends are sympathetic characters.  They are diffident to say the least and indifferent at worst to the lot of ordinary people.  They are islands unto themselves, often adrift, looking for mooring, but so antipathetic that few readers will care if they ever make it to port.

But at least they have considered who they are; and most importantly have understood that self-definition can only come through a battle of wills – who is victorious and who lies down in defeat.
They all – Birkin, Gerald, Gudrun, and Ursula – want nothing to do with the world around them.  The confining, defining, limiting, and oppressive society into which they were born.

They all resolve their inner conflicts for better or worse.  They are selfish and antipathetic; but Lawrence is deliberate about his characterization.  The reader is not supposed to like Ursula, Birkin, or their group.  They do not like us; and we don’t like them; but their final resolution on sexual grounds – domination, submission, gratification – is essentially ours.  There is no resolution other than personal and sexual.

Tolstoy for most of his life searched for answers to being, eternity, and meaning; and of course found no answers; but at least he was concerned with issues of life and death.

Conrad was only concerned with jungle and sea and the existential challenges they posed.   Heyst, Lord Jim, Kurtz, or James Wait fled society and  not tried to accommodate it. They all met untimely and perhaps deserved deaths because of their stubborn embrace of it.

Tolstoy, despite his A Confession, was a life-long nihilist who challenged anyone to show him meaning; but in the end made peace with his demons and agreed that ‘there might be something’.
Dostoevsky was even harsher and more critical of the status quo. Christ sold us all a bill of goods, he said, promising the chance of salvation – not the guarantee – for faith and obeisance.  We all want only mystery, miracles, and authority so we reject his revelation and are doomed to a short life of solitariness, brutishness, and nastiness.

The point is that there is far more to life than temporal concerns; and absolutely little to be gained from temporal engagements.

Whatever one might think of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, such concerns are irrelevant, disposable, and uninteresting.

Of course no one is ever focused exclusively on existential concerns; but it is hard to dismiss them entirely.   ‘Why are we here?” doesn’t parse well with “Is Donald Trump a good President”.  Anyone with a narrow or even clouded window into history understands that politics are temporal, excusable parts of human denouement, but nothing more.

Undue attention paid to politics or current social events are only likely to confirm prior observations.
Does that mean that we are closed-minded  and only self-affirming in our judgments?

Not at all.  Shakespeare understood it best.  He knew that his Histories, although individualized fables of famous men and women, were only tales of repetitive history.  Kings, queens, courtiers and peasants all always acted the same and always would.

The point is context.  It serves no purpose to conclude anything on the basis of temporal factors.  Today’s predominant issues of race, gender, and ethnicity are irrelevant when considered in the light of historical context.  Conrad, Shakespeare, Lawrence, Ibsen, Faulkner,  Joyce, and others used contemporary context only as a backdrop for their fundamental dramas. 

The more cacaphonic politics becomes, the more urgent the need to disengage.

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