Response to caseymoz (Reply #92)
Sat Jan 5, 2013, 09:22 AM
sibelian (7,804 posts)
111. Hiya.... warning.... wall. of. text.
Some time has passed since I said I would respond to you properly. I wanted to go away and see if I could distill my feelings about the idea of the world being "off-kilter" into something a little more literal and useful than "it isn't".
I'm finding it quite difficult.
I've decided to just dump what I've come up with into this thread and hope for the best.
You have mentioned environmental destruction, global warming and a system that has distorting effects on the natural human persona. I think one of the reasons I regard these as kind of more normal than we would like to think is because of how I view the current (and no probably ending) "era" of expansion and prosperity.
I think if you look back at human history and compare the it to the 20th century it's very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the 20th century was in fact an aberrant process. All that cheap energy and personal development, all those material and spiritual improvements, really they aren't very normal for the human species, which most trundles on for century after century being much the same as it was. I think a lot of the advances we have made are lucky rather than driven by innate qualities or some slightly indefinable "destiny" of the human species. I also think a great deal of the improvements on 19th (and pre) century living that we now take for granted are descended from the effects of cheap energy, and I think that a lot of the changes in social attitudes that we want to maintain as we go forward into our future are strongly linked to that in occulted ways.
I look at portraits in galleries from ages past quite a lot as I am interested in art, and have a preference for art from earlier times. The people are beautifully painted, with astonishing care, and the thing that strikes me about them is that this beauty doesn't come from happiness but seriousness.
I think people used to take the world and themselves far more seriously. I think that stemmed from the necessity to treat things as if they mattered, as if they had a profound and meaningful connection to the world around them and, almost unconsciously, expected their experiences of it to change them and make them into different people. The idea of "changing the world" is relatively modern, and the more I think about it, the stranger the idea is. I think it stems from a fairly basic misunderstanding of what the world *is*.
It's my feeling that cheap gasoline has led us down a spiritual dead-end. We want, want, want and get, get, get. How can it last forever? It can't. We have been slowly tricked into thinking that the world is a kind of enormous theme park. Everyone can be happy! Happy is the new normal. Sad is BAD. We DESERVE it. We're WORTH it. What do these things even mean?
Movies are stuffed with positivity and winning and the good guy getting the girl. Even when movies try to deal with the concept of sadness it's wildly off-base, they wring every last shining tear out of their actors, striking grotesque attitudes and poses to try and wring emotional reactions out of the audience. Sadness is never simple or normal in the world of modern fiction. It's always elaborately established and gutwrenching. It's as overblown as the success-against-all-the-odds stories that form the basis of most modern heroic adventures.
Many highly intelligent people have manged to discover things about the world that we had no idea about until the last century or so, through science. I think this has led to a monolithic concept "the world must be made to fit human expectations" and I think that's just *impossible*. I think this idea has filtered into us, overtly or by suggestion and we are bombarded internally by our own inability to make our dreams come true.
Dreams are wonderful things and it is wrong to turn away from them, but I think it's silly to think that the world is some kind of enormous activity set that we can poke and prod and it will just make happiness for us. When you look into the past and try to understand yourself as part of an ancient process, a process of human living, there have been many, many disastrous consequences for foolish ideas, dreadful wars that make no sense at all, ideological plagues that could have been avoided if they were understood as emotional reactions rather than divine inspiration, insane policies that ruin entire landscapes (Dust Bowl) and so on. Many of the most awful things that humanity has done to itself have resulted from people *following their dreams*. Hitler was a dreamer. He followed his dream, powered the process with his will, which was staggering, and bent the world into nightmarish shapes as a result, because he couldn't disentangle the positive aspects of his dream, which was to lift German society off its knees, from the poisonous imbalance in his soul that couldn't forgive or accept failure. A slightly hyperbolic example, perhaps.
I think the idea that the world is off-kilter doesn't really come from a clear picture of what it would look like if it *wasn't* off-kilter, because, in one way or another, it seems that it always *has* been off-kilter. The obliteration of Native Americans. Easter Island. The Inquisition. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. The Romans used to enslave the *entire populations* of nations.
It's fashionable these days to assume that we are over all these things, that we have changed, I would argue strongly against that. I think the capacity for human beings to screw all this stuff up is entirely innate and not removable, I don't think we can "immunise" ourselves against ourselves. If you read your history and listen to the voices of the dead, they had the same feelings about themselves and the world that we did, their emotions and reactions to the world were *identical* in structure to ours. They wept at the death of comrades in battle, were overwhelmed with joy at the birth of their children, sat by the sick and needy and comforted them, pondered matters of national security and prosperity with deep care, cheated, lied, loved and died in great numbers, and, largely, accepted that this was their lot. I don't think we're any different from them. I think a lot of the problem with modern society stems from the fact that on some level we DO think we're different from them, we think that all this stuff should be fixable somehow. Well, how? Are we, as individuals, simply setting ourselves goals that are simply going to make us miserable?
A great deal has been acheived. Disease is no longer even close to being the demon it used to be, women are now understood to be individuals in their own right rather than slightly-to-one-side versions of men, gay people are now, at last, being welcomed as natural and completely ordinary members of the human race and bigotry is, if not removed entirely, at the very least widely understood to be deeply contraversial and mostly a target for mockery, at least in western liberal democracies. Technology has changed the way we work and live and made everything everywhere a good deal easier and more comfortable for very large numbers of people. The grinding misery of existence no longer grinds as fine and long as it did.
But there's a side effect to that. We are no longer hewn into shapes that fit the world. We want to believe in fairies and dragons and superheroes rather than ourselves and each other. We think the world is enormous labyrinth and if we take the right steps along the way, always carefully choose the appropriate path, then the path will lead us to a golden destination and the more I live the more ridiculous that idea seems, that isn't how it works at all! Again and again we find ourselves banging against the walls of the labyrinth and curse fate when really we should have looked at ourselves and seen that the wall was coming and that the pain of banging into it was either because we weren't looking where we were going or it isn't a wall at all but our own silly preconceptions.
I do not see humanity as separate from the world but as a part of it. Species go extinct, change, renew and burst into existence all the time. Why would we be any different, we who are motivated by the same forces of hunger, love, fear and contentment that characterise the lives of the simplest organisms?
We are driven by what we feel, and we only have a finite gallery of tools in our heart, so it is natural for us to want the world to be amenable to the work of these tools. But these tools are not there to change the world, they are only there to change *us* or the bits of the world that already make sense to us. We hack away at all levels, personal, social, political, spiritual at one big conundrum after another and sometimes it works, sometimes really well, but it's seems very wrong to me now to think that the world is going to provide us with solutions to everything that faces us. It's not on our side and never has been. We're good at solving puzzles so we want the world to be a giant puzzle, but that's not because it *is* one, it's because behaving as if it is makes us feel good about ourselves. The world isn't a game or a trick or an illusion or a mystery waiting to be solved or a test. It's a place. So it's a little bit odd to think of it as being off-kilter... All the things that upset us about the way it goes about its business are things that have always been happening. It's perfectly sensible to want to change the bits of it that we don't like (particularly the bits we have the most control over, i.e. ourselves) and celebrate when we win, but that doesn't mean that it exists *for us to solve*. It doesn't. It just exists.
There. That's a lot of very pre-digested, extremely repetitive, vaguely interconnected stuff that I haven't analysed at all. I'm sure you can think of plenty of things wrong with it! Feel free to take it to pieces. I'd love to be able to think of the world as a nice big nth-dimensional sudoku that's eventually going to get completed because usually I'm quite clever and that would make me feel good.
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Hiya.... warning.... wall. of. text.
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