Philosophy

Humans as purely materialist individuals? Perhaps it’s time to (re)read Jung.

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Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung offered what he viewed as a diagnosis and therapeutic treatment plan for the modern West. Born in Switzerland in 1875, his methods are practised and taught to this day but his concepts are generally considered out-dated in regards to contemporary theory. His understanding of archetypes is often useful in the analysis of visual culture, especially film and television but his concerns for the condition of “modern man” are not so freely referenced. Jung saw the image as a way in which the human being was somehow in touch with transcendent truth, a philosophy which jars with post-modern scepticism. And yet, to delve more deeply into his system we find a sophisticated account of human development through imagery and symbolism that offers a refreshing perspective and an optimism of sorts. A forward looking approach is perhaps what our culture is in need of in troubled times, and in rereading Jung we are offered a route into fresh and hopeful dialogues, or at least an encouragement in this direction.

Jung’s ideas have never really managed to completely break through to the general public, while the ideas of his contemporary Sigmund Freud have become a part of the “Psychology 101.” This is perhaps because Freud’s work fits with the predominant materialist vision of Western science and philosophy. Freud offers a cynical account of human life. In contrast, Jung’s theories are of interest because they offer an alternative vision of the human mind. His concepts offer a vision of therapeutic progression; what follows is a consideration of Jung’s theory of the image, the active imagination, the archetypes, and individuation. These are ideas that understand the human being as capable of standing in charge of their own life, where the imagination and creative force of an individual contribute to a more complex understanding of the world, and thus present a more positive image of human potentiality.

Freud saw himself as a scientist filling the gaps in our knowledge of human behaviour; he defined sexuality (or ‘pansexualism’) to be the foundation of all human behaviour. Jung and Freud both agreed on the existence of the unconscious, but Jung broke with Freud, seeing wider implications of psychology and thus exposing the importance of the human psyché in parallel to scientific discovery. Freud’s theory, based on the principles of attraction and aversion, is a conceptually simpler way of assessing the psyché, but it does not pose the same therapeutic quality or metaphysical understanding present in Jung’s work. Freud’s theories, based upon materialism and mechanism, offer the prognosis of continual misery because he assesses the human subject to be full of irrational longings that society cannot accept, hence the subject is destined to deny aspects of their being and suffer.

Jung insists that this fatalistic summary is flawed, arguing that there is potential in human beings to become individuated. Philosophically, individuation expresses the general idea of how a thing is identified as an individual thing that “is not something else”. For Jung it is the process by which the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated fluctuating being into an integrated whole. This is a form of mental maturity that not only allows for, but depends on the interplay of opposites; the conscious and the unconscious, the personal and the collective, the divine and the human, life and death, female and male. This state of equilibrium calms and fulfils the individual. Jung maintains that we are symbolic animals who are alienated from the symbolic aspect of life. The archetypes are symbols similar to Platonic ‘ideas’ or forms, which are the most true reality, existing in and also beyond physical being, so whether manifested or imagined, each image or emotion of the human world fits into an autonomous and transcendent archetypal category.

Jung defined the human being as directed by the mind, or psyché, which is made up of the conscious and the unconscious, connected by the ‘active imagination,’ which mediates between them. He described the conscious mind as in charge of our awareness at the present moment, controlling our immediate experience of the external world. The unconscious mind is instinctual and translates our experience of the world and of ourselves. For Jung the unconscious is collective and holds knowledge of universal archetypes. When the bridge between the conscious and the unconscious is made, a potential for a fullness of real selfhood becomes possible, which Jung called Individuation.

The creative aspect of the mind, what we might term imagination, is seen by Jung not as the slave of sexual instinct but as an autonomous attribute of the human being which illuminates archetypal knowledge. His work presents the imagination as a source and means of knowing the archetypes and the locus of our creative impulses and our psychological wellbeing. He sees it important that the human being should drop down into their unconsciousness via their imagination, whether by direction for example with the guidance of a therapist, in dreams or by artistic expression. The active-imagination engages with the healing power of art and dreams and is the guide to individuation.

For this process, it is necessary for the individual to understand the symbolic and archetypal, which aids the recognition and integration of the deeper and, at times, darker, unconscious aspects of the psyche, which must be reconciled. Jung believes the modern world to propagate an environment of conflict because humans have repressed their unconscious, and are unaware of what they have lost. These “lost” contents can be destructive, erupting as negative actions and emotions. He poses that the modern West puts inordinate responsibility on the conscious mind, and in the process humans become divided, their active-imagination becoming inert. This forced splitting between the unconscious and the conscious mind leads to psychological distress, or what Jung termed ‘neurosis’. For Jung it is the unconscious mind which communes with archetypal images, the images which properly connect us to ourselves and the world around us. The archetypes are shared concepts which permeate the collective unconscious and emerge as themes and characters in our dreams and surface in our culture – in myths, books, films and paintings.

 

The archetypes are not specific images in themselves but categories of imaginative experiences that inform the imagination and image making. Jung saw all imaginative images to fit within certain archetypal themes. There are many Jungian archetypes but some examples are; ‘the great mother’, ‘the child’, ‘the trickster’, ‘the flood’, ‘the locked door’, ‘the shadow’, ‘the wise old man or woman’ etc. Myths and legends are always highly symbolic and channel the archetypes into ones conscious; Jung believes this to be healthy.

Jung’s theories can be seen as reconciling the tension between subject and object, in response to the potent question in modern philosophy of how the human subject is adequate to object. Jung posits that the dichotomy between subject and object becomes blurred by the unconscious, because objects and phenomena in the world stimulate symbolic meaning which feeds the imagination, the external and internal world become intertwined and expressed on a non-physical level. The imagination offers a different way of approaching ‘knowing’, opposing the positivist scientific model of knowledge. Positivism being the philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof- the system therefore rejects metaphysics and any kind of theism. The ways of thinking that come from this are all based on materialism, which is to hold physical matter as the fundamental substance.

A comparison which contextualises what the term symbol implies is to explain how symbols are theoretically differentiated from signs. The German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer elucidates a philosophical understanding of a symbol in his book Truth and Method. He explains that while a sign points to something else outside itself, “a symbol manifests the presence of something that really is present… and makes something immediately present.”  Gadamer gives the example of a picture; “a picture is certainly not a sign… a picture points to what it represents only through its own content. By concentrating on it, we too come into contact with what is represented.” A sign for example, a road sign, stands to signify a curve in the road but is not also that curve in the road. The symbolic image thus opposes a Cartesian attitude that allows the world to be interpreted as dead thing; the archetypes dynamically connect an image to the world; thus a Jungian approach provides a useful alternative to the current opposing positions of deconstruction and essentialism.

The potential for individuation is represented in culture, which constantly presents archetypal offerings, e.g. the struggle between good and evil. This is an argument for why we actively need art and culture for our wellbeing. Creative work with its origin in the active-imagination becomes representational of both the conscious and unconscious. Art is often highly symbolic which stimulates the active-imagination of artist and onlooker. There is some sense of a primordial experience of wholeness that the artwork tries to capture, this resists Freud’s reduction and exemplifies the healing power of art, exposing the creative impulse as essential to our nature. The film Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders is a prime example of a Jungian narrative. Set in the divided Berlin, the film is a motif for the individuation process itself. In the film, the city is populated not only by humans but angels too and follows the romantic union of an angel and human, which is representational of the unconscious and the conscious mind synthesising.

As a mediating force between subject and object, the imagination opens up a space for creative knowing and understanding. At a time when enlightenment mentality is being continually reassessed, to reflect on Jung’s work is to gain confidence to delve into the realm of imagination and work dynamically with our subjectivity, yielding knowledge past the limits of positivism.

A Jungian perspective presents us as biocultural beings who need cultural knowledge of ourselves to develop, and to aid further acquisition of knowledge in all disciplines.

 

This article is an edited extract of a talk that was given at the Chisholme Institute in the Scottish Borders, 23rd April 2017.

 


Selected Bibliography

Dissanayake, E. 1999. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. Seattle; London: University of Washington Press.

Dunlap, P. T. The Unifying Function of Affect: Founding a theory of psychocultural development in the epistemology of John Dewey and Carl Jung. Educational philosophy and theory. Vol 44. Issue 1. P53-68. 01/02/2012.

Jung, C.G. 1960. Psychology and Religion. Based on the Terry lectures delivered at Yale University 1938. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jung, C.G. 1960. The Collected Works of C.G Jung, Vol. 8. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. 1969. Collected Works of C.G Jung. Vol. 11. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. 1979. Man and his Symbols. Ed. by Jung C, G, von Franz, M.-L. London: Aldus Books Ltd.

Young-Eisendrath, P & Dawson, T. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Jung. 2008. Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Welland, M. Active imagination in Jung’s Answer to Job. Studies in Religion/Sceinces Religieuses. Sept 1997. Vol. 26. No.3. P297-308.

 

 

Click ‘like’ to send a condolence? The art of mourning in the era of post-modern technology

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Zdzisław-Beksiński-grim-reaper
Zdzisław Beksiński, Untitled

Grief is an inseparable part of the human condition. But what is grief today and how do we mourn as compared to mourning in the recent decades? As humans, we are used to place our feelings in words, spoken or written; instinctively, we need to make them tangible, formulate them and mould them in order to make sense of the world. The super-speeded attention driven character of the social media, namely Facebook, and the specific language it uses has significantly altered our perception of grievance. By bringing the grief online, we take what used to be the very private matter to an essentially public podium and allow it to be openly disseminated.

The essence of this instinctive need to vocalize our personal grief is, above all, the need to share it. Indeed the urgency to express ourselves generally differs from one to another but ultimately, to share our feelings, offer little parts of ourselves in language is a natural thing to do. By ventilating our grief and our loss of a beloved one, we not only act upon the responsibility to inform our friends and family of a sad event. We also ask for support, for stories to hear that we never heard, for love and memories to share. Internally and individually we start to reflect upon the many different values of life: love, friendship and family support, empathy, fulfilment, values we hold. And, naturally, upon encountering death, the awareness of our own life’s mortality becomes stronger and more urgent.

By bringing the grief online, we take what used to be the very private matter to an essentially public podium and allow it to be openly disseminated.

Themes originating in grief and responding to humans’ questions of life and death have been explored in art for centuries. Memento mori, or ‘remember you must die’ in Latin, is a classic reminder of our mortality and inevitable end. It stands on the very other end of the antiquity’s Nunc est bibendum (‘Now is the time to drink’) theme of debauchery and joie-de-vivre. Memento mori scolds us for enjoying the pleasures of life. Its suggestive depictions and symbols can be found in all spheres of artistic expression, from paintings of well-known Renaissance painters, through music (such as, but not only restricted to requiems) and literary masterpieces. Funeral aesthetics and cemetery architecture is a memento mori story in itself. Think of the famous ossuary in Rome, the Capuchin Crypt or Kutna Hora Ossuary in the Bohemian part of the Czech Republic. Another genre of memento mori is the ‘danse macabre’, the dance of the death. The grim reaper, usually in form of a skeleton or two, accompanies a living flourishing human, hovering discreetly in the background or tugging on her clothes to invite her to a dance from which there is no way back. Below is a depiction by Italian Baroque painter Giovanni Martinelli, ‘The Death Comes to the Banquet Table.’ The merriness from around the table has just been interrupted, the guests are in disbelief and refusal: “You want to take me?” asks the nobleman to the right, “why me?” We are shocked and apalled at this unseemly interference.

Death_Comes_to_the_Banquet_Table_-_Memento_Mori_-_Giovanni Martinelli_NOMA
Giovanni Martinelli, the Death Comes to the Banquet Table, between 1625 and 1638

In still-life painting, such pieces, a sub-genre of memento mori, are referred to as vanitas. The term originates in the opening lines of the ‘Book of Ecclesiastes’ in the Bible: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ In vanitas, the presence of death is shown in symbolic depictions of the fleetingness of life and earthly possessions. They are meant to convey a moral message to the audience – do not waste your time on the passing pleasures and lustre of material things, as they will not last. Life is in your hands, measure it carefully. Vanitas were especially spread amongst Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th century, the real masters of the discipline   Artists such as Pieter Claesz were seemingly obsessed by the macabre topic. Have a look at the image below, Cleasz’ ‘Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball’ – we could name nearly a dozen of vanitas symbols embedded in the canvas. Of course there is the skull (a straightforward symbol of mortality), the watch (the passing of the time, the clock is ticking), the violin (the fleetingness, ephemerality of life), the glass bubble in which we can see the artist’s reflection; a reference to the fragility of our daily realities, ready to pop at any moment.

Pieter_Claesz._-_Vanitas_with_Violin_and_Glass_Ball_-_WGA04974
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, ca 1628

We can find hundreds and thousands of examples of memento mori in literary works throughout centuries. Writers, poets and philosophers seem to have even more pressing urgency to explain and dissect the predicament of grief. Grief tends to be magnified as the ever present burden of human life, but also beautified and caressed, nearly appreciated in the smooth lyrical form. ‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S. Lewis, Roland Barthes’ ‘Mourning Diary’ or ‘A Very Easy Death’ by Simone De Beauvoir – all of these are masterpieces of mourning, beautifully put together in remembrance of a person, experience, though, a lifetime.

The title image of this article is by Zdzislaw Beksinski, who, now that I mention this, actually never titled his works. All Beksinski’s works are filled with dark sorrow. Understandably so, since Beksinski got his share of tragedies – in 1998 died his wife Zofia and on Christmas Eve a year later his son Tomasz committed suicide. After the tragedy, Beksinski is known to have always kept an envelope hanging at his apartment’s wall addressed “For Tomek in case I kick the bucket.” The artist himself came to a tragic end when he was stabbed to death by a young relative in 2005. What is clear, however, is that despite, or maybe due to such uneasy life Beksinski succeeded in making his art as beautifully breathtakingly sorrowful as they are. (Have a look at his website here, a piece of art in its own.)

French philosopher Jacques Derrida published only couple of years before his death, ‘The Work of Mourning’ (2001) a collection of essays, articles and reflections collected from period of some twenty years. The texts originated as memorials and condolences written after deaths of famous personalities, Derrida’s peers and friends, and persons he admired. These texts are artfully written, nailing down both personal and collective, emotional and intellectual sense of loss. In his work Derrida pays his homage to these great personalities but he also highlights the importance of friendship, and what becomes of friendship after we lose the friend. He touches upon the feeling of guilt and that of unpaid debts. ‘There come moments,’ he writes, ‘when, as mourning demands [deuil oblige], one feels obligated to declare one’s debts. We feel it our duty to say what we owe to friends.’ (Derrida, 2001)

Expressing ourselves not only helps us deal with mourning, but can also preserve this certain element of beauty and artistic value of life that are vital to remember for those who go on living.

Of course, we cannot all weave masterpieces of our griefs and transform our losses into novels and paintings, and that is not my point here. These examples show the fact that there can be a certain quality of expression found in grief. Expressing ourselves not only helps us deal with mourning, but can also preserve this certain element of beauty and artistic value of life that are vital to remember for those who go on living. Saying this, we should note that Derrida was originally opposed to this exhibitionism of feelings and words, hesitant to write and later on to gather all the mourning texts together in a collection. He explains his reasons:

What I thought impossible, indecent, and unjustifiable, what long ago and more or less secretly and resolutely I had promised myself never to do…was to write following the death, not after, not long after the death by returning to it, but just following the death, upon or on the occasion of the death, at the commemorative gatherings and tributes, in the writings “in memory” of those who while living would have been my friends, still present enough to me that some “declaration,” indeed some analysis or “study,” would seem at that moment completely unbearable. (Derrida, 2001, pp. 49-50)

According to Derrida, one who speaks of the recently deceased puts himself in great danger of dishonesty, if unintentional. What is this dishonesty he speaks of? What Derrida had in mind is how easily the words we carefully select to praise our lost ones can turn into small-scale privately conducted ‘political’ moves. We pity ourselves for having to live without the deceased, we turn a homage for another into the ‘I’ and ‘me’ reflection of simple narcissism. We grief for ourselves to have been left behind. We tend to share this transformed ego-driven grief, instead of the initial pure one. It needs to be remembered, states Derrida, that we ought to give credit to a unique friendship without falling into such trap of self-regard. (Derrida, 2001)

‘The works of mourning’ touch upon two points that I find to be of key relevance to the way mourning is processed today in social media. First of them, as Derrida highlights, is the utter uniqueness of a friendship’s status and its very individuality and unrepeatability once the person is no longer ‘with us’. No one knew our friend in the same way as we did.  The twofold character of contemporary Facebook-maintained friendship possesses at the same time a uniqueness of such connection (the unique context in which we knew each other) but also generality, a certain shallowness, that comes with a growing internationality and transiency of our lives. For some, Facebook and social media present the only contact they have with friends and families at the other end of the world. Constant flux of our daily realities makes it more difficult than ever to maintain personal contact with all the friendships created in another countries, on different continents. Facebook audience constitutes a very special sort of ultimately diversified audience – although making up a circle of ‘common friends,’ they are in fact people from utterly disparate backgrounds, stages of life, age, beliefs. You could be from a different world, and a Facebook friend of a friend of a friend would still be in the same (un)know about you as if you were his neighbour. An important factor when it comes to grief expressed in social media is to understand the nature of its users, of the generation who use it the most. That is, for example – and allow me this generalisation in order of simplification – predominantly young professionals who migrate from one country to another without necessarily needing any base ground to settle. Because yes, that is one thing social media allow us – a certain degree of ‘intimacy’ (if disputable) on distance, a means to keep in touch, an illusion of proximity.

The second point to note in Derrida’s collection is the heightened feeling of indebtedness in grief; the creeping feeling that we have not valued the time we had together enough, that much more could have been said. From this guilt partly comes the need to justify our knowledge of the person who is no longer with us. Inwardly, remembering him or her for ourselves, as they were in us, and outwardly, sharing with the others, what we knew of them; shouting: I knew her too! She was special to me too! We justify our friendship to our Facebook friends and families of our deceased friend who we have never met. Yet what else can be done? How else can we address these people, for us really just imaginary people living somewhere in the Facebook universe, since we never met them?  “Speaking is impossible,” writes Derrida in Memoires for Paul de Man, “but so too would be silence or absence or a refusal to share one’s sadness.”

Even if we call it inevitable, how does the way we speak of our grief and comment on the losses of our connections on Facebook differ from that in the ‘real’ life? Probably the most obvious difference is the directness with which social media bring personal loss to the utmost end of public attention. The very private is transformed into a spectacle, in this case not only to be seen but also available to be discussed by everyone. The scale of whom we grieve for has also changed. Not only we can now feel genuine sorrow for our close ones, but Facebook and Twitter allow us to pay respect to our favourite film star or musician. We can see such RIP messages popping up on our Facebook pages every so often, and we share them and comment on them. Can you imagine sending a condolence letter to Alan Rickman’s family? I love Rickman’s every single performance, yet I cannot imagine myself going as far as that. So why do that on Facebook? Why indeed – Facebook gives an easy story to be told by everyone: it gives us power to be part of otherwise inaccessible, grieving process. How simple and instant it is to post a RIP message on the wall and ‘remember.’

Why can’t we just pay a silent homage to our favourite actor instead of shouting it on our walls? What value does a ‘RIP Alan Rickman Luv U 4 ever’ post add to the world?

In theory, this is a great way to share our sadness over the loss of our favourite actor or acclaimed director. Fair enough, it is a quick and painless way, as otherwise we would not have the opportunity to share this with the world. The problem is that often these RIP messages turn from harmless spectacle into absurd theatre, exactly into what Derrida warned against: a narcissist race for acknowledgment. Such situations become mad hunts for the funniest quote of the deceased, the rarest video clip, the best picture, the wittiest summary of someone’s life in Twitter’s 140 character limit. If we honestly ask ourselves why we have to share the sad news in a super-speeded-way on our wall – what will the answer be? Why can’t we just pay a silent homage to our favourite actor instead of shouting it on our walls? What value does a ‘RIP Alan Rickman Luv U 4 ever’ post add to the world?

Whatever the case, we should always keep in mind to whom we want to address our words and what reaction these words could produce. Derrida in text dedicated Roland Barthes writes:

“I would like to dedicate these thoughts to him, give them to him, and destine them for him. Yet they will no longer reach him, and this must be the starting point of my reflection; they can no longer reach him, reach all the way to him, assuming they ever could have while he was still living. So where do they go? To whom and for whom?” (Derrida, 2001, p.35)

The thing is that Facebook grievance presents a confusing situation from several points of view. Are you obliged to inform the Facebook community, the deceased friends and acquaintances, since they would otherwise never know? And how are you supposed to respond to someone posting of their loss on the social network? First step of thought is that if someone shares such private and painful information with the world, you may feel safe to assume that you can react. But what do you make of a person who ‘likes’ and RIP post, or a notice of a friend’s passing away? What do they think when they click that like button?

As I already noted, it seems to be a slightly different situation with condolence messages for the people we ‘knew’ on Facebook. Facebook messages and comments on the wall can provide huge support to the close family and friends and I am far from claiming the opposite. The wall becomes a memorial in its own, the love expressed becomes eternal. At least for now, when we still firmly believe in the eternal power of the digital world. Certainly, to send a Facebook message as a condolence if we do not have any other means of contacting the close members of the family, it is still better than nothing. Then again, in the digital era we live in, is it really impossible to find contact details online; to google up an email address, or a phone number? How much more would it cost us to send a condolence by mail, a bouquet of flowers or pick up the phone and call? Or, god forbid, to pay a visit in person? How much value has a like of an RIP post, if we compare it to Derrida’s texts singularly dedicated to his friends? Maybe these are incomparable subjects and it is unfair of me to put them together. It is clear that social media bring some very interesting elements of grief that are worth considering, both from their positive and negative aspects. However, following the great classics of painting and literature, even mourning can be taken with all serenity, with feelings of beauty and life that prevails. I cannot help myself but wonder that some of the most special selfless elements of grief get lost in the social media’s display of mourning, whilst some of the worst ones become easily highlighted.

 

Alice Maselnikova


References

Derrida, Jacques. The work of mourning  (2001) The University of Chicago Press Books

Images

Zdzisław Beksiński, Untitled. Oil on canvas Available at www.beksinski.pl

Giovanni Martinelli, the Death Comes to the Banquet Table. Oil on canvas – 114.2 x 158 cm, Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art, Photo : Galerie G. Sarti

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, ca 1628. Oil on oak – 35.9 × 59 cm. Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

Dostoyevsky 125 years on: secret yearnings of the human soul

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125 years ago on 9 February 1881 died arguably the most well-known Russian novelist in Europe, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский). What should a today’s reader remember about him as a writer, thinker and a man?

In his vast work consisting of 11 novels, three novellas, 17 short stories and many other publications, Dostoyevsky depicted a staggering amount of social plots and characters. What they share is not just the urban and rural backdrop of the tsarist Russia, but Dostoyevsky’s ceaseless pursuit to understand the human soul. And no wonder, already during Belle Époque intellectual circles in European cafés considered that the Russians with their “great soul” are particularly apt at perceiving the fragile and complex fabric of our anima. The vastness of Siberia, chill of continental winters, and constant threat of a foreign invasion from several directions explains the emergence of tsarist autocracy. But perhaps it also led the Russians to start being strongly attuned to suffering and passing moments of happiness. In this Dostoyevsky’s writing is exemplary: with the same blow, his work can put the human soul at the top of a pedestal of virtue and ethics, only to strike it down the very next moment to the abyss of despair, insanity, or petty day-to-day maliciousness.

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s last novel, is such a work. Sons to a debauched father, who spent his life as a womanizer and careless buffoon, capture in their personalities different aspects of Russian character. Dmitri seems like the national archetype, a sensualist with a short temper but a warm heart, contrasting him to haughty intellectual Ivan, who is actually concerned for humanity to such an extent that it leads him to reject God as the ultimate cause of grief and misery. Dostoyevsky’s Christian ideal is clearly in the third brother, caring Alyosha. Alyosha does not deny there is suffering, but tries to sublimate it through help, compassion and perceiving the good even in the shades of darkness.

In The Brothers Karamazov, human yearnings reach their full play. The seductive beauty of Grushenka, a woman whose abuse by a Polish officer had led her to torment men, sparks off a vicious struggle between a son and father for her attention. Proud and beautiful Katerina, on the other hand, is trying to save her fiancé Dmitri from himself. Even if that means creating a barrier between her and Ivan, the two of them sharing an actual, yet hidden love. Next to these colourful characters, Alyosha’s good nature might seem such that his personality is almost disappearing. This makes a parallel between him and Count Myshkin, the hero of another novel, The Idiot. Both are Dostoyevsky’s answer to what he saw as problems of his age: that much suffering is created if one gives in too greatly to human passions and relies on rationality alone to solve complex social ills. The political manifestation of this was for Dostoyevsky in nihilism and socialism, as portrayed on the revolutionaries of The Possessed. But human psyché is thus not just in politics; the effort to uproot and reorganise all social structures is only one consequence of it.

The Russian author tried to demonstrate that we eternally, perpetually yearn for bliss, satisfaction and perfection, but the struggle to reach them here and now fuels rifts, conflicts and creates even more destruction. My happiness might be your doom, as Dmitri realises as hid madness deepens from the thought that Grushenka may “fall into his father’s clutches”. The ancient Greeks understood this very well too, but unlike Dostoyevsky they saw the conflict as without a resolution and not needing any higher justification than itself. Life could be regarded as beautiful nevertheless, because its greatness and its misery portray one whole, a piece of art that is a tragedy. In one of the highly memorable quotes from The Brothers Karamazov Dmitri observes that “[t]he awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Dostoyevsky therefore agrees with the premise that human passions clash; even in beauty darkness and the light are intertwined. Yet for him this conflict can be reconciled in God, specifically in (Orthodox) Christianity. While human beings cannot entirely forgive injustices, Christ did and can. The best one can do, Dostoyevsky believes, is therefore approximating our behaviour to the Christian ideal, which is the background of the characters of Myshkin and Alyosha. Their strength of character is not supposed to be “diminished”, but to offer a glimpse of a different form of acting: understanding and letting people reach their potential for goodness, rather than a constant effort to impose one’s will and subject others to the individual’s schemes and plans.

In Ivan, who represents Western modernity, we are offered strong rebukes to Orthodox Christianity. Ivan rejects Christianity, because even if God existed, he says, he could not love humanity at all: meaningless pain and sorrow that he creates are without excuse, particularly for children who could not yet even commit any sin. Chapter 4 of the book contains this horrifying paragraph, narrated by Ivan to Alyosha:

“There was a little girl of five who was hated by her mother and father. . . . This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy [outhouse], and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans!

Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark in the cold and weep her meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted?”

Where was God then? asks Ivan. To press this point further, he also tells to Alyosha a Biblical apocrypha about grand inquisitor, which since then became known as a story on its own. (The reader can see it below in the riveting performance of John Gielgud in the 1975 short film from the Open University.)

In this story happening during the times of Spanish inquisition, Christ again walks the earth, performing miracles. But the grand inquisitor puts him behind the bars, claiming that Jesus interrupted their work. He is not needed; he is actually the reason behind human misery, the inquisitor tells him. Instead of offering humans bread, guidance in the form of earthly rule, and certainty of afterlife, he only gave them freedom. And that freedom, the inquisitor says, is good for nothing, because it cannot satiate passions and needs. With freedom, human beings will only go after each other’s necks. Perhaps Christ therefore did not love humanity at all, when he put on them such otherworldly demands, Ivan and the grand inquisitor say together. To that Jesus replies only by a kiss.

I will leave the reader to make his or hers own conclusions. What is clear is that the author of The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, or short stories such as The Meek One or The Gambler was always dominated by the quest to understand what is happening in human minds, hearts and souls. Perhaps this might give us a few thoughts to ponder about even in the digital 21st century?

 

-Stanislav Máselník

(updated on 19 February 2016)

Forsaken by gods: a short reflection on Ancient Greek religion

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A strange question, to ask if gods abandoned us. After all, many people in Europe today stopped believing in God at all. To speak of gods is then even stranger. It seems to point to pagan religions gone from Europe for a millennium or more, if we do not count some odd cults, whose efforts to revive dead beliefs usually turn into a caricature. Others may even feel uncomfortable to speak of “divine matters;” as some recent events, whether in France or in the Middle East, could indicate that we are better off without god, be it in singular or plural.

But let’s just consider one possibility: that we don’t really know who or what gods are. A brief consideration will show that the God of Christianity or monotheistic religions starkly differs from gods worshipped by our ancestors in Ancient Greece. It is then possible that over the course of this examination, we will discover that what is divine can be actually quite familiar to us. Even to the extent that we could find out that life has a holy dimension that our civilisation is not sensitive to. If this were to be the case, the fact that gods are “missing” would receive a new meaning. We could then start asking how did this happen and whether we can thing beyond such circumstances.

To start with the three big monotheistic religions, their answer to what is God is well-known. God is one and all-powerful. “He” sits at the top of hierarchy of beings; uncreated, he is the creator of all. He rules, orders, commands, but is also deemed to merciful towards his creation. Obviously, for the increasingly atheistic Europe the problem is to believe in this God at all. How can God be kind and compassionate, when he allows so much individual and collective suffering? Unless one is deeply convinced of their faith, it is hard not to sympathise with Stephen Fry, who considers God “utterly, utterly evil“ and asks „[w]hy should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

There are also philosophical problems with this conception of God. Christians often say that our ethics nowadays lack transcendence. And by that they mean that our moral standards are hollow, because in a “Godless time”, they don’t have an origin in God’s command and providence. If all moral rules are based on human consent and opinion, there is no reason to prefer one to another, they say. Apparently, only the existence of a greater being that will tell apart good and evil provides us with such transcendence ground our behaviour and moral principles. Without going to argue against that conception, we will see that the Ancient Greeks had an entirely different view of transcendence. If we look more closely on transcendence, it will also give us hints about their understanding of gods.

For the Greeks there was something else around us than just “mere things”, which means to say this or that entity. What fundamentally “is” is that something is or is not. And that it is this way or that way. It is a sort of basic miracle of human existence that we are and we won’t be. But as long as we are, we recognise ourselves as existing, here along with other humans, animals, things, or the world. We are born into a certain time, into definite conditions, and deep down we know that our ultimate fate is to die and cease existing. This means to say that we understand being, in all its temporal and historical dimensions. To our knowledge, we differ in this aspect from every other being, be it a stone or an animal. For this reason, German thinker Martin Heidegger spoke of human beings as Dasein, which in German means “being-there”. Humans are of such kind, that we have the power to understand being of our time and place, precisely as we proceed towards death. For us, stone is not just a stone – it may be a familiar rock lying next to our homestead, where we played hide and seek as children and where we gave our first love kiss on her lips. We live in the world of meaning, that is in the realm of being, which is, existentially speaking, more fundamental than any facts that science may subsequently discover.

The Ancient Greeks, according to Heidegger’s reading of pre-Socratic philosophers and Homeric texts, tacitly understood all this. Being. How things are. What they are like. How we are. How the world is. That things are rather than are not. For them, being is the true transcendent. And this transcendent is reachable only because there is one being whose fundamental feature is understanding – of its own existence and of being as such with it. We could say that humans are a sort of a portal or “a clearing in the forest” (Heidegger’s expression), where everything gains its meaning. In the eternal play of birth and death, struggle and stillness, love and hate, all things shine with significance. No supreme being, not even Christian God as traditionally understood, can be transcendent enough in the light of such transcendence. He is “just another being”, even if highest in the rank, while the dimension that transcends beings – being itself – is omitted.

Our understanding of being changes. Under most circumstances, we go on about daily routine, without realising it is a routine in the first place. How often we stop and think why do we engage in this and that, what future does it have, where is it heading, why is it meaningful? In Being and Time, Heidegger calls this inauthentic behaviour, but that may be misleading: to a great extent it is unavoidable, it is how we are. We all know the humdrum of a regular working day. Waking up after the alarm clock can’t be ignored anymore. Sun inconspicuously shining through the windows of the bedroom. Outside the construction site wakes up into existence as machines rumble to finish everything off before the arrival of winter frosts. A long sip of coffee to fire up brain cells and then a tram that jolts along the rails and on which all carless employees rely to carry them to the office. Whether we spent the day diligently or incline more to procrastination, afternoon ends and if it is the right, perhaps we will finish the day with the right company over a drink. But do we realise all this? When do we notice if something or someone does not point it out to us? The state of normalcy seems to be that we don’t grasp this being of our daily regime. Yet there are more fundamental things that we forget. What also slips away from us as we go about day-to-day affairs is that we are mortal; beings who are born and who have to die. It is also the apprehension of our mortality that throws us back against the mystery of being: that “things” are, but they just as well might be not.

A conversation with a good friend, a thoughtful film in a cinema, loving relationship with someone who opens to us other important things in life, in all such crucial moments the real understanding of our situation can emerge. It erupts. It does justice to the saying that we sometimes use – that a realisation comes down on us as a “lighting out of a blue sky”. Truth comes, it appears, disappears again, and we have no control of it. Is it then any surprise that our Greek ancestors saw gods as messengers of being, messengers of truth? We are surrounded by the familiar. By this or that being in our daily routine that we go about as if we “know” it. Only at moments the ordinariness breaks and we can say to see the truth. We gave a small example of such occasions above, but how does it work?

A first kiss between lovers can be a message, perhaps. It is a sign. A sign of a relationship, but also that the world is now a different place, a more liveable place, one brighter and happier. Since happiness is fragile, the kiss just as well might not have happened. The lovers could have never met in the first place. Or, a mistaken word, a foolish action, could have never led them to build that relationship. The truth of being suddenly emerged – and it could just as suddenly disappear and hide into concealedness that is also part of truth. It is in human power to understand being, but not to control it. We can machinate and dominate beings, we can smash atoms and modify genomes, but we will never change what things and how things are. Happiness, sadness, inspiration to action, laziness, keenness of an eye for a scientific discovery, they rush down with force and change our sight. That is why a kiss can be divine. It “transcends” us as individual beings, it transforms us from the ordinary day-to-day experience that we don’t properly realise, into the realm of being, of meaning, of truth. It is extraordinary, tremendous, daemonic. Love is a fundamental truth, just as friendship, hate, or revenge for example. For that reason “behind” or “in” a woman that we kiss there may appear a goddess. There can’t be a “mere woman” when she carries the message of the transcendent, of being beyond the ordinary appearance of beings, even beyond two people standing there. Do we have to still wonder that the receptive souls of poets and artists could “divinise” women or “divinise” warriors? That they could identify that behind this man or this woman, there is a divine being? Was theirs really a naïve anthropocentric religion, or was it rather an essential part of their attunedness to being?

It may still seem peculiar that Greek gods appear in human form. Perhaps the Greeks were simply “poetising” and gave names to universal concepts? Or did they really think that the gods had a personality and we could come across them walking on the meadow, so to say? Such understanding would miss what the Greeks saw and were trying to express. The fact that gods appear, Heidegger notes, has a connection to our capacity to understand truth – to understand being. Understanding of being we carry in our behaviour, we adopt a look. That look is open to others, it awaits other beings, because in our existence we living in communication and sharing this world with other people. Human beings are distinguished precisely by a look, as only through such “looking” being appears and can express itself in truth. To put it bluntly, being can appear only in us and through us, just like in the example of two lovers that we gave above. We have a relationship to being that can’t be found in stones, plants, or animals. As Emilio Brito observed, it is “[p]recisely because the tremendous has to appear in the figure of something ordinary, that the Greek god appears in the human form, because human being is a being that has a special relationship to being, as a place where being itself is revealed” (Brito 1999, p. 156).

It means that in the Greek world, gods have a special connection to us the mortals. Human beings can see and be struck by the divine, because it is in human heart alone where being appears. Gods “look” out of human form, because it is only in speaking, struggling, fearing and believing in each other where we can grasp being, in lightning and flashes. And it is precisely gods who reach beyond the ordinary and point out the daemonic message of transcendence. Are we forsaken by gods because we are not attentive but to daily affairs, that we treat everything as faded, ordinary, just as “mere beings”? Can a world dominated by calculative thinking, logic of capital markets, or non-committed relations on social networks still find itself rediscovering the subtle message of what it means to be?

Bibliography

Brito, Emilio (1999) Heidegger et l’hymne du sacré. Leuven : University Press; Uitgeverij Peeters (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum theologicarum Lovaniensium).

Force Majeure (review): ethics swept by avalanche

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What it means to have a good character? And how can we tell that someone has it? The Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is bluntly unambiguous on both accounts. A character and ethics are inner and arguably deepest part of our selves. Unpredictable events well may come down on us with ferocity and mercilessness that remind of a divine act. Yet how we stand up to them is far from random. And it is this pattern to our response that we know as character.

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La démocratie directe d’Hannah Arendt

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La Révolution Française n’atteint jamais sa cause ultime à cause de la misère, ce fléau social qui la mena non pas vers le chemin de la liberté, mais vers celui de la Terreur.[ref]ARENDT, Hannah, On the Revolution, p. 351.[/ref] Du côté de la Révolution Américaine on pourrait parler de succès, car celle-ci aboutit non seulement à l’établissement de la première Constitution, mais elle déboucha sur une période de stabilité qui perdure encore de nos jours dans la plus vieille démocratie de l’époque moderne. Malgré cela il faut néanmoins nuancer cette réussite si l’on tient en compte que la liberté, telle qu’elle était comprise par Hannah Arendt, ne fut ni atteinte ni garantie lors de l’aboutissement de la Révolution Américaine.

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EU referenda: The right answer to Europe’s ills

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Debating Europe: Do we need Referenda on EU Membership?
Debating Europe, discussion: Do we need Referenda on EU Membership?

The following is the answer I provided at Debating Europe’s latest discussion on the question of EU membership referenda. As a convinced supporter of direct/participative democracy, I couldn’t but approve of their need. But they are not only required at the national level, for countries such as Britain to decide on their membership, but also and as equally strongly on the level of the EU, where they can serve as the only means that can strengthen the people’s identification with the European project. Especially in the times when the eurone crisis puts the whole integration project under yet unprecedented stress.

For more, I invite you to read both the Debating Europe’s introductory post and my answer below, which is a response to this video, where British Conservative MP Bill Cash and former Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) John Bruton debate out the same issue.

My answer (‘Do we need Referenda on EU Membership?’):

As a convinced supporter of federal Europe and an equally strong critic of the EU in its present form, I have no doubts that in the long term, the integration project can work only if it is built on popular, democratic grounds.

Unfortunately, the EU has been a technocratic project from the start. Based on the neo-functionalist spillover theory that a political integration will somehow naturally follow the economic one, European people and their wishes were put on a second line. Instead of serving as a cure to numerous political problems suffered by European nation-states, such as alienation of the political elite from citizens, artificial technocraticisation or ‘expertisation’ of decision-making, or sectoral interests of corporations and financiers having privileged access to parliamentary representatives, the EU seemingly only deepened these ills and put them into a far greater, transnational distance. Instead of tackling issues that receive added benefit on a continental scale, EU institutions produce endless minute regulations of internal market of the kind of quality standards for cucumbers (they are allowed a bend of 10mm for every 10cm of length!), or now legendary proper measurements of the European banana. This makes of the principle of subsidiarity, officially enshrined in the EU treaties since 1992, an empty shell that can be potentially used to justify any intervention under the argument that the Union is better placed to intervene in those affairs than a member state or local authority.

Lacking a clear reference to the European civilisational identity, which, notwithstanding eurosceptic critics, is more deeply rooted in the European continent than relatively new national identities, the long-term tenacity of people’s belief in European integration against these saddening facts of its actual realisation is rather a proof of the symbolic strength of our civilisation’s identity than a sign of its rejection. People of Ancient Athens, Aristotle, or modern civic republicans such as Hannah Arendt well knew that the best way to ensure citizens’ identification with their polity is allowing them to actively participate in its political affairs. Advocates of representative democracy are always very quick to come up with claims that people are not knowledgeable enough to rule for themselves and that they need experts who will ‘kindly’ take that burden off their shoulders. As if political rule was not as much or even primarily a question of telos (purpose or aim) as that of expertise! The very idea of life in a democratic polity is that political questions are not a matter of experts to decide (contrary to their implementation). No number of experts will be able to make a purely technical decision on issues such as, for instance, the creation of a common federal political entity (or exiting from it, for that matter), engagement in foreign military interventions, or deciding to bail-out the banking system by privatisations and slashing the public expenditures. It requires a stupendous amount of arrogance to claim that providing answers to these questions is a matter of following some correct, rational and technical procedure rather than and first of all a question of values.

Our values are common and accessible to the whole society as they come from the plentiful soil of literature, religion, myths, culture or tradition. It follows that if political decisions are always made through values, based on who we are, it is the society as a whole that is best placed to discern where these values politically lead it to. As any social entity, parliamentary assemblies are prone to think first of their own sectarian interests rather than those of society. If people give that power away to their representatives, instead of delegating it on the condition that these representatives will continue to respect their political will even after the election, there is no longer any democracy and instead a term-limited reign of government or parliament. In this way, referanda are a powerful instrument of participative democracy that are well placed to ensure that MPs and MEPs remain representative of citizens’ interests.

Yes then – referenda are not only the right answer for individual nations to decide on their EU membership, but also the only right and possible answer for making key political decisions in the EU as a whole.

Althusius: A Thinker of European Federalism

Johannes Althusius
Johannes Althusius

As the ‘F-word’ is increasingly discussed in the intellectual and political circles as a viable solution to the Eurozone crisis, it is useful to remind ourselves that there is more to federalism than the well-known model of the United States. In fact, there is an older strand of federal thought that is peculiar to Europe. And this unknown thinker whom I would like to present on the following lines can be rightly called its father. Readers will shortly discover that Althusius’s federalism is easily distinguishable from its American counterpart by its extension of the federal principles onto the society as a whole. The federation is not simply a kind of a nation-state that distributes political prerogatives between the institutions at the state and federal levels. Althusius’s European federalism goes much further below. It is already families, firms, towns and other socio-economic entities that are perceived as rightful holders of political and other rights, and who need to have a say in the decision-making of higher strata of society that contains them. This, indeed, might be precisely what is needed in building a functioning polity in such a complex social reality as we have in Europe.

Let us first briefly start with the life of Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) himself. Besides being a jurist and prolific Calvinist political thinker, Althusius was engaged in active politics of the city of Emden. As a syndic of that city, he had become the main instigator of the arrest of the city’s provincial lord, count of Eastern Frisia, by Emden’s city councillors that transpired on 7 December 1618. Althusius vigorously defended the councillors’ decision as a ‘legitimate act of self-defence and resistance’ against the provincial lord’s infringements on the city’s rights, considering it an ultimate resolve ‘warranted under every natural and secular law’.[1] As will become apparent with the discussion of his work, the right of resistance to tyranny of a government that does not respect the rule of law is a key part of his federal thought.[2] His most famous work Politica Methodice Digesta (Politics Methodically Digested, first published in 1603), which will be taken here as the main source of Althusius’s federal thought, in a similar vein justifies the right of the Dutch provinces to secede from the crown lands of the Spanish ruler.

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