Divining the Machine, part seven
Love this. I’ve just read this by Robert Desnos, which seems apt:
And we must do our loving,
Find fields and trees once more,
Find spring and fun of living,
Forget the savage war.
(From ‘In Helmet’)
Dear Paul, I would not disagree with a word of what you have written (haven’t yet read every line, but I will). Osama bin Laden also critiqued western bourgeois society pretty accurately, even if his prescription for its cure was a bit off.
But . . .
I read your opening paragraphs and thought “how lovely - humans being human again, playing together, eating and drinking together, unmasked, loving, free” - then it got a bit dark 😂
My point is, I think more of us know, precisely because we’ve been given everything by the machine, what real values are, what really matters - as you and your family do: you are not an outlier, not alone. We are all struggling towards the light - it’s just a race to see if enough of us truly get it, before the light goes out. For me, the jury’s still out on that one.
So pray, and fingers crossed
Well said Paul. Instant gratification is what we are force fed with and I have been sick of it all for most of my adult life. While waiting for my wife to join me in the car the other day I watched a spider emerge from behind my wing mirror to carry out some much needed repairs to her web. Now that made my day pal. Wonderful to watch her complete concentration on the task in hand.
One of the best essays in TAoM series. I've experienced that same, sudden, objective distance from holiday/cultural hedonism and had a slightly different take, though it doesn't contradict your thesis. I even made a sort film about that take several years back:
This lifted my spirit this morning, thank you, exactly what I was thinking. 4 years ago I resigned from a comfortable high paying job because I of the stress, I was going to either quit or jump off the roof. Decided to quit thankfully. My wife wasn't to happy about it but she is sticking by me, I can report that I am much healthier, mentally and physically ( lost 50 pounds over that 1st year, am now 180 pounds , ideal weight etc ). I have gotten involved in a Christian ministry and have sworn off buying anything on credit. Its used cars and second hand for me, and my spritual life is the most important thing for me to do, read pray confess etc.. Still have to make some money , I have a job in a small manufacturing plant and some investments but its not crazy. If I wasnt married I would probably just grab a backpack and start walking, walk the earth and get into adventures. In the beginning God created us to not want, to trust in Him, but of course we wanted the one thing He said to not touch.
If we follow the Desert Fathers and see sloth not simply as laziness but as an ever-enveloping apathy to all commitments we've made, I'd say the Machine has all seven sins covered for us.
Thanks Paul, I'm blessed by the fact that my wife and I do not desire to flaunt, to buy and to display. We have the hardest time explaining to our family members that the kids do not need more toys. If you want to buy them something buy food or clothes. Often that suggestion is ignored and I watch an ever growing pile of toys that are never used pile up in the play room. If they are used I see my two year old grab as many as she can and throw them over her head like Scrooge McDuck would money. A clear sign, we want for nothing and indeed even have more than we could want. Many within our network of friends have said the same thing. There is a divide in the millennial generation that I've noticed between those that desire less and those that think they are supposed to desire more. Within this divide it is always those that desire less that seem to have the happiest, warmest, most inviting homes and so I believe that your conclusion is correct. Live as an example to others, want for nothing and consider every small thing a blessing because it is the small things that really count the most. God Bless!
Truth to tell, upon reading this provocative posting, the now deceased Malcolm Muggeridge and his prophetic voice came tumbling into my mind, ressurected, pell-mell, cutthroat and pistol!
Paul has indeed taken on a similar role, as a prophetic and critical voice during these troubling times, but his voice is uniquely distinct from that of Muggeridge, in that Pauls approach is coloured with the majestic mysteries and wonders of nature and how poorly we humans have stewarded this fragile planet we share together.
Here then is a brilliant sampling of Muggeridge and his penchant for prophetic narrative, bristling with irony, intelligence and wit:
“So the final conclusion would surely be that whereas other civilizations have been brought down by attacks of barbarians from without, ours had the unique distinction of training its own destroyers at its own educational institutions, and then providing them with facilities for propagating their destructive ideology far and wide, all at the public expense. Thus did Western Man decide to abolish himself, creating his own boredom out of his own affluence, his own vulnerability out of his own strength, his own impotence out of his own erotomania, himself blowing the trumpet that brought the walls of his own city tumbling down, and having convinced himself that he was too numerous, labored with pill and scalpel and syringe to make himself fewer. Until at last, having educated himself into imbecility, and polluted and drugged himself into stupefaction, he keeled over--a weary, battered old brontosaurus--and became extinct.”
I agree with your diagnosis and would love more help with what to do and how to do it.
So illuminating, as always, and so beautifully expressed. I think the missing element - if you will, the gasoline put to the fire - was the sudden availability of fossil fuels, which allowed vast fulfillment of wants (at least in the “developed” world), at a labor cost that was de minimus compared to what had prevailed over eons. Marx may have had a hint of this, and Schumacher surely understood it. Spiritual restraint is hard pressed to resist such volcanic pressure, especially among the young, who greatest want is to define themselves in new and different ways, far from their elders and traditions. This is all about to move into reverse, probably brutally so; a silver lining may be humankind’s rediscovery of spirituality.
I'm not very hopeful that the solution:" which is putting our own inner house in order", has much chance of happening, if as Paul has stated, we now only care about gratification of the senses. It's a very big leap from one to the other and I can't imagine who the "guides" will be. The ones who are looked up to in the world of the Machine!!!
"What is the brake" (phrased differently) has obsessed me since I first encountered the Club of Rome report 'The Limits of Growth' in late 1972. I have been a Christian preacher almost exactly since then, and what difference has it made? Yet this essay reminded me of "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Last Sunday, I took the text two verses before that - "Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me"", which at least puts Want in its place. But how to gain traction, other than with the decreasing band of believers? With a government (most governments) dedicated to keeping power, even now, by promising the kiddies that they can both have sustainability and the keys to an ever-expanding sweet-shop of instant gratifications? Who is listening, and how to gain traction?
Thanks Paul, well said. Did you know the Financial Times agrees? We have not a mind, or a soul, but "treat brain" -- though they'd argue not such a bad thing. (Of course the neuroscience is pure ideology.) https://on.ft.com/3nBdK6F
Paul, thank you for this. It's a fantastically thoughtful piece.
One of the barriers that I find myself hitting up against in both your work and the global discussion going on these days about climate change, materialism, and let's say, civilizational overload. I come face to face with the question, what can be done? I used to describe myself as a climate skeptic, that maybe, just maybe the scientists and the scholars had something wrong, that surely nothing could be so catastrophic. But we've just put all the problems of material growth onto other people who are less fortunate than the West in some economic manner. I think that skepticism came more from a sense of fear because the problem seems so insurmountable.
I agree with the wisdom tradition of ordering oneself and only then can you begin to branch out into ordering anything else around you, but my question would be, what kind of order? Because it appears to me that the way I've been taught success since high school and college, get a well-paying job, buy a house, build a family, all circles around a distinct form of materialism as well and for as much as I may imagine the benefits of monasticism, I know I'm personally not cut out for that level of asceticism.
I definitely like the idea of living with less. I'd be curious on your thoughts whether you think though that the Minimalist movement and the seemingly pop-up following of Marie Kondo is something brought about by the Machine or a reaction to it? Naturally I imagine there is a Christian sense of minimalism, a reduction in possession without any thought of aesthetic style.
The question is why did the pursuit/gratification of pleasure become an organizing principle of culture. Instant gratification is merely the latest iteration of a centuries-old, societal-wide behavior.
Human beings started valorizing the gratification of their senses when they developed the concept of the permanent self. Any quiet, serious consideration of existence leads a person to the realization that the world is marked by impermanence. But for many (most?) people, this truth is unbearable. A permanent self with definite contours is much preferable. But how to avoid/hide from the reality of impermanence, which even modest contemplation reveals?
Simple. Make desire fulfillment central to people's lives. Human beings are desire generators par excellence. Hundreds of desires emerge in a person's life every minute. Looked at properly, all of these desires are as empty as the rest of existence, but through the simple, yet toxic, act of attaching to them, a false sense of self-permanence can be generated, and more importantly, maintained.
Having thus valorized desires, humans needed a way of distinguishing between the ones to fulfill and the ones to abstain from. Abrahamic religions came up with the categories of "Thou Shall" and "Thou Shall Not," with the result that Western culture can be read as one long, tedious history of desires being moved from one category to the other--sometimes transferred back--and sometimes inhabiting both categories at the same time.
Yet there remained the uncomfortable/discomforting reality of impermanence--a truth that advances in science made more and more apparent. Matter was solid until it wasn't, and now whether something is a wave or a particle can depend on the observer. As scientific evidence of impermanence accumulated, desire satisfaction had to accelerate to keep the truth at bay.
You suddenly seeing things for what they were brought this to mind:
"Within all phenomena,
causes and conditions are empty—
they are devoid of essence.
When you cease your [deluded] mindset
and penetrate the ultimate foundation,
such a person is called a 'true monk.'”
--The Sutra on the Auspicious Appearances and Origins of the Prince Siddhartha
Want is not the acid. Attaching to want is the acid. The belief that some wants are inherently good and others inherently bad is the acid. All wants are empty (in the Buddhist sense, not in the sense of void or nothingness). Humans will never stop generating wants, but to valorize the satisfaction of these wants in a world marked by impermanence is a fool's game.
The brake? Unattachment mixed with a dash of dependent origination and a soupcon of emptiness--all naturally occurring limits (which are the best and most effective kind). Modernity destroys limits because like other manifestations of Western culture, it valorizes desire satisfaction, declaring that wants have inherent nature (and, logically, so too must the generators of such wants).
"All phenomena are devoid of fixed nature,
But in our thoughts, they appear to be [permanently] existent.
Once you perceive emptiness,
No thoughts of them remain."
--Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra
Paul, have you ever read Michael Hanby's essay in Communio called "The Culture of Death, The Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy"? It's definitely worth reading. I'll post it below.
Thanks for another good article to think on and reflect.