WESTERN CULTURE, 2000 AD
Prophets are the incarnation of a dilemma. Their message is quintessentially esoteric, yet they are driven to make it exoteric. As all dilemmas, this cannot be solved, and the usual outcome is the immolation or downfall of the prophet, unless exceptional circumstances temporarily suspend this predicament. Moreover, that there should be the initiate (the prophet) and the uninitiate (the disciples), the latter far more numerous, is a rather indigestible concept in a democratic climate. "Initiation", we are told however implicitly, reeks of, and rhymes with, "discrimination".
Therefore, traditional values such as the teacher-disciple relationship, training, patience, methodicalness, and constancy, have been lost in the sacred and profane spheres alike. For example, in the figurative arts, think for a moment of Jackson Pollock, who based his life’s work on trying to reproduce in paint the patterns made by his long-lost father urinating on stone. Such paintings, to which I used to refer, perhaps flatteringly, as "unappetising spaghetti", are on display in many major museums the world over. Clearly, this is not the environment for Cimabue to say to his pupil Giotto, "You have surpassed your teacher."
And yet, an esoteric reading of contemporary exoteric culture is an irresistible temptation. So, what is the state of popular western culture in the year 2000?
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, All About My Mother, is on a victory march. He has been awarded as the Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival; Best Movie of the Year of the International Cinematographic Press Federation (Fipresci) at the Festival of San Sebastian (Spain); Best European Film and Best European Director at the 1999 European Film Awards; Time Magazine’s Best Movie of the Year; the Golden Globe for the Best Foreign Film; seven Goya Awards; the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and the list goes on.
Manuela, the story’s heroine, leaving a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire with her 17-year-old son, Esteban, watches in horror as he is killed by a car while chasing the play’s star for an autograph. He had been begging his mother to tell him about the father he never knew, and keeping a journal entitled All About My Mother (the echo of All About Eve is deliberate). After Esteban's death, Manuela goes to Barcelona to find the boy’s father, who now goes by the name of Lola. Transsexuals, a pregnant nun who works in a shelter for battered prostitutes, the Streetcar star’s junkie lesbian lover--all have a role in Manuela’s life. Eventually, we are asked to believe that the transexual father of the late Esteban has impreganted the young nun, though one wonders at the attraction a nun would have for an ageing transexual? Dutifully, the latter is afflicted by AIDS. In the end, the nun dies at childbirth, and Manuela mothers yet another son by… Lola.
Ernest Lehman, Alfred Hitchock’s favourite screenwriter, and my teacher in Los Angeles, taught me a golden rule in story-telling: "Never tell the audience something it already knows." Yet, Almodóvar first shows us the unfortunate death of Esteban; then has Manuela recount this tragedy not once, but twice to other unknowing characters. Is the audience yawning? Yes and no. The intent is to jerk the audience’s tears, to engender sympathy not so much for the son and mother, but for all characters involved. Almodóvar himself has stated: "There is no greater spectacle than watching a woman cry."
Consequently, we are made to commiserate a circus of painfully grotesque and implausible characters. This is the culture of the glorification of degradation, and of aimlessness. The film would seem to suggest, perhaps unwittingly, that the degree of freedom enjoyed by the characters is a burden of such magnitude, they simply cannot deal with it.
Twenty-five years ago, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, Or 120 Days Of Sodom portrayed yet more degraded individuals. Some might remember the notorious scene in which a few characters are made to eat human faeces. The intent was also, presumably, to shock the bourgeois, as the film was censored, sequestered, etc. Nowadays, the intelligentsia applauds, and lavishes awards to films that not only portray man at his most disoriented worst, but demand our sympathy, and praise.
This is the blind alley of exasperated existentialism, a bottomless pit. At his best, existentialist man, just and upright, is a sad priest without God, as exemplified by Dr. Rieux in Camus’s The Plague; at his worst, an anthropocentric, arrogant individual who demands nothing of himself, and indulges in whatever weakness or degradation, either for the thrill of it, or because, not knowing any better, he cannot help himself.
The sovereignty of the unqualified individual, of the generic human being as such, is no longer a juridical idea, but a psychological state inherent in the average man. Well, are average man and woman happy? Judging from Almodóvar’s film, not in the least.
And there is more.
A hugely popular recent film reveals another aspect of western culture, possibly more alarming. Titanic tells the fictitious story of a star-crossed love aboard the doomed ship on her maiden voyage. The heroine is betrothed to a rich but callous man for reasons of convenience. However she falls in love, head over heels, with a clandestine passenger, a boyish and penniless painter. As the ship sinks, the rich man selfishly saves himself at the expense of a woman or child, whereas the poor man sacrifices his life so as to save the heroine’s. Millions and millions of young and not-so-young women have wept all the tears they had as they watched this. What do we have here? A clear anti-materialistic message? Yes, but most of all we have a reshuffling of the age-old Tristan myth. Western culture in year 2000 is, by and large, no longer Christian, yet not secular either. It is, however unknowingly, Manichaean.
Manichaeism is hinged on a dualistic division of the universe into contending realms of good and evil: the realm of Light (spirit), ruled by God, and the realm of Darkness (matter), ruled by Satan. The two have become mixed and engaged in a perpetual struggle. The human race is a result and a microcosm of this struggle. The human body is material, therefore evil; the human soul is spiritual, a fragment of the divine Light, and must be redeemed from its imprisonment, both in the body and the world. In this world of matter, pure (spiritual) love cannot exist. Therefore, it can only be had in the afterworld. Hence, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult, etc.
Contemporary western audiences weep at Titanic in unconscious recognition of their shortcomings and failures. Drawing from their own experiences, they recognise that pure love cannot be had in this world, and identify with the star-crossed lovers. Despite their freedom in selecting their spouse; despite the possibility of amending mistaken choices by divorcing and remarrying over and over, western man and woman long for a love of a purity that, they realise in spite of themselves, cannot be had in this materialistic world, but only in the afterworld. Since most of them do not quite believe in life after death, however, this becomes a modern degeneration of Manichaeism, with a strong nihilistic tinge.
Decadence is a comparative concept. Tremendous forces insist in showing us a rosy picture. "Progress", this term of more than ordinary vagueness, has conscripted many powerful allies down the centuries. Indeed, the whole problem began in Florence, about six centuries ago.
Some jewellers on the Ponte Vecchio were asked to hold gold in their safes by friends and clients. Noticing that the amount of gold removed by owners was only a fraction of the total stored, they realised that they could temporarily lend out some of this gold to citizens in need, obtaining a promissory note for principal and interest. This was the very beginning of the modern banking system. Indeed, the first modern currency was the Florin, employed throughout Europe. Thus usury was legalised by governments, and became banking. This sealed the end of what I call The Age of the Spirit, but modern world calls The Dark Ages.
Yet, progressive propaganda teaches us that the Renaissance was just that: a rebirth. By intellectualising man, and withdrawing his soul, Descartes rebelled against the magnificent edifices that Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, and to a lesser extent the chronically confused Giordano Bruno, had built. (Della Mirandola attempted to fuse Christianity with Neo-Platonism and the Cabala; Ficino "limited" himself to Christianity and Neo-Platonism; Bruno attempted to revert to Egyptian magic [apocryphal, as it transpired].)
Later on, Enlightenment further consolidated man in his self-appointed throne, along with whatever was deemed useful in Newton’s physics. (It must be emphasised that Newton was much involved with alchemy, but this would not have been an ally to progress). Then came the -isms, and progress triumphed utterly.
Mechanism, Darwinism, Positivism, Determinism, Modernism, and their inevitable offspring: Existentialism, Atheism, Nihilism.
In other words, six centuries ago man began to seek God in his own navel. Not finding Him, he continued to explore, albeit in the wrong place. In the end, he forgot even what he was originally seeking, and all he could show for his quest was… nothingness. From this, he declared that, having found nothing, there was nothing to find, and God, or the Godhead, were inventions of primitive cultures. The word "superstition" became fashionable; reason, a fetish.
Anthropocentric, un-subordinated man left to his own devices reminds me of a anaplastic cell, the cancer cell that invades and destroys the surrounding tissue, or system.
Loss of subordination to a spiritual authority came hand in hand with loss in subordination to a temporal authority.
The problem of Power is the problem of Sovereignty, and the problem of Sovereignty is the problem of Legitimacy. Power is effective, valid and just, not abusive, if it is based on a legitimate Sovereignty. As such, it is naturally, spontaneously, even intimately recognised by all who are bound to it. Yet, a few paragraphs above, I wrote: "The sovereignty of the unqualified individual, of the generic human being as such, is no longer a juridical idea, but a psychological state inherent in the average man." And the average man is he whose life lacks any purpose; he who makes no demands on himself; he who does not transcend, but rather slides down the easy slope, or simply goes drifting along.
"Traditional" civilisations, unlike "modern" ones, were based on a different vision of the world. Reality was sacred and spiritual, as opposed to material and materialistic. Consequently, Power, Authority and Sovereignty were not based on the number of votes (and, nota bene, the turnout at US election is about 10% of the voting population; these vote for candidates who only thanks to immense funds and backing could afford to run campaigns), but on a superior and metaphysical origin. In a society living in the time of myth, the divine origin of Power was not absurd, as any right-minded (or should I say conventional?) modern person would have it, but natural. It was not an abstract, but a concrete and indeed factual concept. The person who incarnated it, the King or Queen, the Monarch, had a twofold function. Not only did he govern his subjects, but was also a go-between with the Authority that, from above, legitimated his power. He or she was, in other words, a pontifex, a bridge-maker.
The Catholic pope is still considered a pontiff, a pontifex, but from the inception of the Christian Church this concept was misapplied. When the Holy Roman Empire was born in 800, its first Emperor was not a pope, but Charlemagne. This fracture between Spiritual and Temporal Power has caused wars, blood-baths and man-made calamities since.
HRH Queen Elizabeth II is "by the Grace of God, Defender of the Faith", although not the Head of the Anglican Communion, as the latter has no central authority and no one person from whom it can expect final authority. Rather, it consists of national, autonomous churches that are bound together by ties of loyalty between the see of Canterbury and each other. This is due to historical reasons, of course. But, as Defender of the Faith, Queen Elizabeth II is the closest incarnation of a Traditional, and metaphysical, form of Authority. As is to be expected, many, many forces have been at work in the Twentieth Century so as to undermine Her Authority. This is a great pity, for She represents a veritable miracle of Tradition in an otherwise degenerated world.
Liberals and progressivists may now trumpet their slogans and stock phrases. But they must be reminded of what Ortega y Gassett wrote. "Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the person of excellence, and not the common person, who lives in essential servitude. Life has no savour for her/him unless (s)he makes it consist in service to something transcendental. (…) This is life lived as a discipline--the noble life. Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us--by obligations, not by rights. Noblesse oblige."
Yet, in this self-satisfied age in which ordinary man presumes to govern himself, we have become acquainted with a new set of afflictions. Never before have the masses been afflicted by the degradations of affluence. Insomnia; obesity, and its Phase 2: anorexia and bulimia; manic and chronic depression; drug addiction; alcoholism; autoerotic deaths, and so on. Un-subordinated, anthropocentric, listless people in the rich world realise that they are sick of themselves and of what they have worked so hard to surround themselves with. The mentioned degradations seem to them the only options. One might say that they need dope to counteract the impact of all their labour-saving devices. And those free from these afflictions can easily be complacent robots, food tubes.
One of the many casualties of this climate of self-destruction and nihilism is prayer. The West no longer prays. On the other hand, Moslem nations pray five times a day, and then more. A semi-serious hypothesis has come to mind time and again. Could it be that, in response to their fervent prayers, the Arab nations were granted immense oil-fields, as if they were a manna, while the non-praying West produced its various industrial revolutions, which made this liquid hydrocarbon so all-important? It would be a subtle instance of retroactive praying. The response to their supplication was under the feet of the faithful, already. But it took the West to "activate" this long-granted response.
Does this mean that praying is advisable? By all means, and not merely for selfish reasons, obviously. Praying, kneeling before the Godhead, sanctions one’s subordination to a Transcendental Authority. The goal in one’s life is outside it, beyond it. Transcendence makes us yearn for God and this goal at once. They may well be one and the same. As Queen Elizabeth II a-scended to the throne, so can we tran-scend our insulated egos and short-sighted desires. This is the life of the pilgrim, or, as the Sufis call it, the Tariqa. Transcendence implies subordination to a higher principle, and yet the elevation, and sanctification, of one’s life.
But the intelligentsia sanctifies, with awards and promotion of all types, the glorification of degradation. There is an intrinsic anti-transcendental meaning in the very word. To degrade, from the Latin de- de- gradus- step. To transcend, on the other hand, derives from trans- trans- scandere to climb.
When man was created, he could not help being jealous of the birds. Flying along invisible lines, they soared higher than he could see, and migrated to distant lands he could only imagine. Since he could not fly, he started to dream. In time, he began to build temples. But a more compelling drive was inside him.
He became a pilgrim.
His necessity to integrate the cosmic course made him contemplate, consider the flickering course of the stars. The very words say it: contemplate, from con- templum (a space for observing auguries); consider, from con- sidera, with the stars.
Solar in his conception of the sacred, but also seeking the complementary lunar principle, all he needed was to align his path with the invisible tellurian forces along which shrines of all types have been erected down the ages.
May we all start on a pilgrimage, reach our destination, and go well beyond it.
Copyright © Guido Mina di Sospiro.
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