Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Questions of Ultimate Whatever

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So it’s Tuesday, and it’s tax day, so I’m sort of floaty and distracted, the way I get when I have important things to do and don’t feel confident doing them.

I get into that state fairly often, because I don’t really feel all that competent to do much of anything.

But this is a head’s up, just so you know that although this post has a point, it may come through a little sideways.

Lately I’ve been reading this book called The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson. 

This was advertised as a history of the ways in which people have tried to reconstruct their lives after their loss of faith.  And as an idea, I think this is not a bad one. 

The history of Western attempts to replace religion with something is longer than we usually remember, and contains a lot of twists and turns that seem impossible now.

I haven’t got all that far into this book yet, and I don’t want to make some grand pronouncement on it before I finish.

But reading what I have so far keeps bumping me up against a wall that may be a matter of temperament and may be a matter of education, but I can’t tell.

First, let me say that I am not usually aware of how much the rejection of religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries consisted of an equally passionate rejection of science.

The New Atheists today spend a lot of their time declaring their undying commitment to Reason and Science, but their counterparts in the first wave of Death of God thinking seem to have spent a lot of their time being really very silly.

This was especially true of the time between the two world wars, where you have men and women draped in togas and scarves wandering around the Swiss countryside doing interpretive dance because–actually, I never was quite able to figure out the because.

Everybody was passionately concerned with “wholeness,” because they felt their lives had been “fragmented” by industrialization, or something, or–what the hell.

This is a kind of talk I have heard before, but I have to admit I’ve never understood it.   My life has never felt particularly fragmented, and I don’t think it’s because I’m some superior intellectual being.

The idea of being fragmented seems incoherent to me.

I have somewhat the same problem with the term “alienation,” meaning to not like your job, or feel like you’d rather be anywhere else.  I do in fact experience those last two things, but they don’t seem like some cosmic state so much as an ordinary part of life. 

Of course sometimes we hate our jobs, and sometimes we need to do things to eat that we’d rather not do.  Welcome to reality.

But very soon after the proto-hippies leaping through the Swiss air to express their solidarity with nature, or whatever the hell, we get to the period between the two world wars, and there to the idea that Art would be a substitute for religion.

Some of you are about to point out that Matthew Arnold tried this on decades before Verdun, but Arnold’s idea of substituting Art for God was considerably more organized than what happened with Isadora Duncan, the Dadists,  Bernard Shaw and the rest of them.

This is art should substitute for religion by being an experience.  We will become “whole” through self-expression.  We will find Joy and Meaning and Wholeness (always Wholeness) and I don’t know what else.

You get a lot of the same kind of language in the work of people like John Dewey and other luminaries of the early “religious humanist” movement. 

Hell, you get a lot of the same kind of language now, whenever one of the New Atheists or The American Humanist Association or the Secular Humanism people puts out a statement about how to live without religion.

Joy! Wonder! Creativity! Awe! Sometimes it’s feeling part of the fullness of the natural world.

I never have any idea what any of this stuff means, or even what it is supposed to mean. 

If people tell me they have personally experienced something, I will usually give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re telling me the truth, or at least what they perceive as the truth.

But this sort of language connects to nothing I understand. 

Add to that this insistance of this writer on the importance of art people at large during this period–the insistance that interpretive dance, Expressionist art,  avant garde literature and all the rest of it profoundly changed the way everybody thought and felt, and I’m just left speechless.

In the first place, I don’t believe that there was ever a time when the ordinary run of people was taking its identity or philosophy from avant garde anything.

While intellectuals were installing urinals in museum shows and railing against the alienation of capitalist rationalism, ordinary people were spending their time in the movies. 

If they were using art to try to construct new identities at all, they were basing them on The Perils of Pauline, not the logical impracticalities of Djuna Barnes.

I don’t think art functions this way, for anybody, and I don’t think it ever has.

Whoever it was–Louis B. Mayer?  Sam Goldwyn?–was on to something when he said that if you want to send a message, you should call Western Union.

Certainly art of all kinds sends messages, whether we want it to or not, but it almost never sends them effectively when it’s being done on purpose.

We learn things from novels and plays and movies and television and music and poetry, but almost never the billboarded intention even if there is one.

I become aware every once in a while that this kind of thinking about art is still alive in certain places and among certain people.  There are a number of art groups and individuals out there who “use dance to express…” whatever.

I have never understood what such people think they’re going to accomplish, because staging an interpretive dance about racism in Harlem is likely to attract mostly the population of Morningside Heights. The actualy Harlem people will all be off somewhere listening to hip-hop.

Maybe it’s that I think that what these people are trying to express is inherently false–that life is not what they want it to be, and that on some level they know it.

I feel the same way when humanist groups start going on about Wonder and Awe and Joy and…whatever.

The words are coming out of their mouths, but they don’t seem to connect to anything that actually exists in reality.  They’re sounds without meaning, fill-in words meant to pretend to content but not actually to have it.

I end up wondering why people feel the need to talk like this, what it is that they perceive that I don’t.

Because, really, my idea of the Meaning of Life is a Monty Python movie.

Written by janeh

April 15th, 2014 at 7:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Questions of Ultimate Whatever'

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  1. That’s the classic search for meaning. One of my less favoured expressions is ‘I’m spiritual, not religious’, often accompanied by something about the joy and wholeness and connectedness the speaker feels when in nature. I had such a conversation only last week. I sometimes enjoy nature too, particularly if the weather is nice and my mood is right and I’m walking in my favourite bit of woods. It’s all very pleasant and even joyful, but it’s never struck me as something that could provide meaing in life. But then, I think I just don’t have the right mind for anything contemplative or meditative, so maybe I’m missing something.

    I don’t think I’ve even watched an entire Monty Python movie, so I don’t get those either, although I can pick up on the basic cultural reference of meaninglessness, is it?

    Artists who Have A Message?? I just get tired of the pretentiousness, and can’t imagine that they have much if any influence on the wider society.


    15 Apr 14 at 9:10 am

  2. Pretty sure it was Sam Goldwyn who advocated Western Union. I’m with him on that. Few things wear out their welcome with me faster than fiction which lets ideology trump storytelling–and few things age and die faster than the cause du jour novel or movie.

    Ah, the nutcases! I would rate the long (relative) peace of 1815-1914 as humanity’s greatest accomplishment, from the growth of applied science through nutrition, medicine and education to constitutional government. But a very substantial percentage of the educated leisured classes went completely insane, and they don’t seem to have recovered since. It seems to have hit professional artists particularly hard. And yes, I have that same problem with a lot of the “Oneness with Whatever” bits. The words all seem to be English words, but the sentences don’t have any meaning I can decipher.

    I will be interested in how the book develops. My reading on the subject is no broader than I could help, but the responses I’ve read about seem to fall into two broad camps. There are the people–Nietzsche and others, including the totalitarians–who argue that if there is no ultimate enforcer of justice, then we get to make up our own rules–which might be quite different–or have none at all. These people, like many of my favorite fantasy and SF writers, I think are working logically from a premise with which I disagree.

    The larger camp wants to keep (pretty much) all the rules, but sees themselves as priests and prophets–just transferring the moral authority from Harvard theologians to Harvard ethicists, if you will. Dewey sees educators in the lead role. Arnold saw Great Art. (And guess who got to decide what was Great Art, and interpret it?) The avant gardists–nah. Too easy. Let me just say that of the two factions, I only respect Nietzsche and the open totalitarians.

    But if there’s a third, I’d like to hear about them.


    15 Apr 14 at 6:23 pm

  3. I have never read Nietzsche but, given what Robert wrote, I’m pretty much in intellectual agreement. I accept the big bang and evolution and can’t find anything solid to hang “human rights” on. Especially when the list of “Basic human rights” keeps getting longer and longer and the rights are mutually inconsistent.

    The closet I can come is Utilitarianism – maximum happiness of the people in a society. But would I be less happy if I’d been born and raised under Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia then I am now?


    18 Apr 14 at 6:14 pm

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