In previous contributions to Praag, mention was made of the modern tendency to career helter skelter after all manner of doctrines and ideologies, mostly peddled by the fashionable media and their muftis, the “opinion formers”. In the paragraphs that follow a few brief remarks will be made about interesting and influential figures of the modern era who reacted against, what one may call, the popinjay syndrome. ( a popinjay is a parrot!)
The intellectual and cultural climate of the Twentieth Century was marked, above all, by an ever increasing sense of absurdity and senselessness, arising not only from a loss of faith, encapsulated in Friedrich Nietszche’s famous announcement that God was dead, but also from a general and growing awareness of the ultimate futility of man’s best and worst endeavours.
On the road towards nihilism no small role was played by the church itself, including the (Holy!) Inquisition and the wars of religion, with as its glorious climax, the infamous Bartholomew night when the flower of French protestantism was massacred Dingaan style by a crazed and fanatical Catholic mob. The great blood-letting of the French Revolution was as much a revolt against a corrupt and self-serving religious establishment as it was against the aristocracy. The colonial experience and the unspeakable barbarity of the two world wars in the last century gave the coup de grâce to what little was left of modern man’s belief in our civilization and its values. Were the forces of evil then to be victorious in the end? Was the heart of man the “Heart of Darkness” after all?
The Irish poet and mystic William Butler Yeats wrote these lines in 1921, three years after the end of the First World War:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Wherever we look around us we can recognise what Yeats is talking about. Societies in decay, family life disintegrating, marriage cheapened, nations abandoning their identity and their birthright, culture becoming more and more vulgar and superficial, language corrupted and perverted to serve some or other obscure political agenda, economies in tatters. And then, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” What can be more real and more true than that? One simply has to open a newspaper.
(The fact that Yeats ascribed the situation of our world largely to the growth of democracy, we shall leave aside for the moment.)
Closer to our time there is the ideologically-driven obsession of the churches with social justice and racial equality which alienated millions more. Since the social gospel preached by the churches can be served so much better by politicians, academics and the media, why trouble oneself with warming the hard church benches for a watered down version of Karl Marx?
In a letter to a friend Joseph Conrad wrote: “Faith is but a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow. In this world – as I have known it – we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause, or of guilt. There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves, which drives us about a world that is always but a vain and floating appearance.” Conrad must have been in a particularly dark mood when he wrote this, because, if he consistently held these views, it is difficult to see how he could have written anything at all. As he says himself in the novel, Victory: “woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love – and to put his trust in life”. But are the two statements contradictory or do they merely illustrate the ambivalence of the modern psyche?
It is clear that the spiritual, existential, call it what you will, crisis of our age is first and foremost a crisis of faith and a loss of a sense of direction. Estranged from God, from nature, from our age-old values and rituals, from each other, from ourselves,
“We are the hollow men
We are the straw men
Headpiece filled with straw. “ (T.S. Eliot)
Note the head filled with straw.
We are witnessing at present the astounding spectacle of thousands of Western youths leaving their countries to go and fight for an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. Absurd? Yes probably absurd, but made possible by a spiritually and morally bankrupt society no longer capable of offering young people the sense of purpose they need in order to exist.
Consciousness of the precariousness of our civilisation and the relativity of its values have become deeply engraved in the soul of modern man. What is right in one place is wrong in another, what is good for you, is bad for me, what is true today is false tomorrow.
Which brings us to Nietzsche. Friedrich Nietzsche is a landmark figure which cannot be avoided if one is to say anything about the modern age without burying one’s head in the sand. He was enough of a genius to see the impossibility of his statement that God was dead”: If God exists He cannot die and if He does not exist He cannot die either. No, Nietszche’s quarrel was not as much with God as it was with a society for whom Christianity had become an empty shell to which no more than lip service was paid, in search of respectability and a comfortable conscience, or even worse, for political and ideological expediency. (To borrow a phrase from Conrad: One of the dead cats of civilization). Then rather get rid of the shell as well and found a new ethic on different grounds. A full blooded atheist is to be preferred to a phoney Christian.
Was Nietszche therefore a nihilist? To a certain extent yes he was. But on the other hand he did not create nihilism. As someone put it somewhere, to describe nihilism is not exactly the same as being a nihilist. Nietszche is certainly not a nihilist in the sense that he rejects all traditional moral principles out of hand. His doctrine, if one may call it that, was rather that every man should create his own values or rediscover existing ones and stand by them, live them.
There is a lot about Nietzsche that we can disagree with. The last thing that he would probably have expected, is to be followed blindly. But we can learn lot from him too, above all to have the courage of one’s convictions, to say no, to disagree, to refuse to conform, to refuse to follow slavishly the prescriptions of ideology. For the greatest enemy of a meaningful existence is to subscribe, to agree, to conform and to obey.
Another landmark figure then is Joseph Conrad. On the 3rd of August, the Polish author, Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad) died ninety years ago in Bishopsbourne, England. After a career at sea he started writing and produced a long series of novels, and novellas, among others Almeyer’s Folly, Lord Jim, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness which served as the scenario for Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now.
In his novel, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes two company officials: “… leaning forward side by side, they seemed to be tugging painfully uphill their two ridiculous shadows of unequal length, that trailed behind them slowly over the tall grass without bending a single blade”. One may be entitled to ask, was it they who were dragging their shadows or their shadows that were dragging them? But, whatever the case may be, it is certain that neither way did they manage to disturb the grass.
Elsewhere in the same novel Conrad talks about one of the same company officials: “….it seemed to me that if I tried, I could poke my forefinger through him, and encounter nothing but a little loose dirt.”
From the despair of his spiritual vacuity modern man clutches at all manner of straws (straw again!) whether it be materialism , “social justice”, democracy, egalitarianism or heart breaks over the oppression of (black) minorities. In South Africa a clique of black oligarchs have enriched themselves horrendously in the space of twenty years, mostly through nepotism, fraud, straight embezzlement and corruption, while millions of others have remained poor or have become poorer. But to this the human rightists, the egalitarians, the social “justicers”, the prayer groups and the media remain oblivious and impotent, ever so reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s ineffectual fops.
When man had thrown off what he considered to be his moral and religious fetters and shackles he could have been expected to feel liberated and relieved. At last he had fulfilled the ideal of Adam and Eve and become the centre of the universe. Yet never before has man seemed more confused, forlorn and empty than since the “ death “ of God. Hence when the character Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness senses the end approaching, he can only hiss “The Horror, the horror” – the horror of a life and death without meaning.
Shortly afterwards when the manager’s servant announces: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead” the effect is: so what, he has been dead all along.
What room does all this leave for trust and confidence in the future? Not much. But do we have any other choice but to keep trying? As the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett said somewhere: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter, try again, fail again, fail better”.