Great Man is Dead

The satiric faux-journalism of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report was meant as a bit of edged humor at the expense of the overinflated self-image of humanity that’s been fostered by the cult of progress, and I’m glad to say that most of my readers took it as such. I fielded a few quibbles, but most of the commenters took the joke in good part.
I was amused to note that a noticeable fraction of the hilarity focused on the use of “frack” as a swear word. No, it wasn’t a Battlestar Galactica reference; those who are familiar with fracking—that is, hydrofracturing technology, the latest popular excuse for ignoring the narrowing walls of industrial society’s increasingly harsh destiny—will understand the usage at once. Since fracking is a penetrative act carried out with no thought for anything but immediate gratification, it certainly counts as a profanity, and I’d like to encourage my readers to use it in everyday conversation whenever strong language is called for.  For that matter, a good case can be made that those who think it’s appropriate to treat Mother Earth that way deserve to be called “motherfrackers.”

All jokes aside, though, last week’s post also drew on what was once a traditional way of talking about deep changes in the inner life of peoples and civilizations. That’s why, for example, the Greek scholar Plutarch wove a very similar story into his dialogue on the twilight of the ancient Greek oracles.

During the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, a character in the dialogue claims, passengers aboard a ship sailing from Greece to Italy heard a mysterious voice calling out from the island of Paxi, telling the ship’s steersman to pass on word to the coastlands further on that Great Pan was dead. The steersman, an Egyptian named Thamus, relayed the message as directed, and a great cry of lamentation went up from the uninhabited shore. Word of this got to the emperor, who was himself a serious student of mythology; he referred the matter to a committee of experts, who determined that the Pan who had just died was the third of that name, the son of Penelope by Hermes (or, in a scandalous variant, by all of her suitors during Odysseus’ absence—thus the name given the horned and horny god).

There’s a fine irony, and probably a deliberate one, in Plutarch’s choice of an Egyptian as the message bearer in his story. The Egyptians of Plutarch’s time were no strangers to dead gods; Osiris, one of the greatest of the Egyptian deities, was believed to have died twice, and only rose from the dead the first time, a detail that apparently did nothing to interfere with his performance of his divine duties. That’s commonplace for divinities: pilgrims to Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Japan, for example, can visit the grave of Sarutahiko no Okami, whom believers in Shinto consider to be the chief of all the earthly kami (divine powers, more or less) and still very much a living presence. Two millennia ago, in much the same spirit, pilgrims on Crete paid their respects at the grave of Zeus and then offered prayers and sacrifices to him as an immortal god.

All this came to mind a few weeks back when the news carried a belated silly season story about the campus atheist organizations at a couple of American universities. The groups in question celebrated Halloween by setting up “god graveyards” full of paper tombstones naming allegedly defunct deities, along with signage hinting broadly that the Christian god was next. The smug and self-satisfied ignorance that’s practically the trademark of evangelical atheism these days was very much on display here:  the deities consigned to these cemeteries, for example, included quite a few who are still being worshipped, some of them by tens of millions of people. (Of course those tens of millions don’t include many white middle class American college students, and doubtless that’s why the sophomore atheists involved in the stunt didn’t get around to noticing them.)

It also seems to have escaped the attention of the graveyard-builders that Christians believe that their god died once already, and wasn’t noticeably slowed down by the experience. As noted above, gods do that sort of thing all the time. This is true, curiously enough, whether you think of gods as bodiless superhuman beings, archetypes of the collective unconscious,  narrative figures portraying the highest ideals of a culture, or what have you: death simply isn’t a great inconvenience to deities. It’s only human beings who find mortality awkward to deal with.

And abstract representations of humanity, like the one whose rise, fall, and wretched end was the subject of last week’s post? That’s another matter still.

Every human society has its own collective image of what human beings are like, which serves more or less the same role in that society as the ego or self-image does in the psychology of the individual. That image is always a polymorphous thing, subject to constant redefinition in the competing interests of subgroups within the society, and it’s also subject to changes driven by historical cycles as well as to something not far removed from genetic drift. Still, variants of the collective human image in any human society always have a close family resemblance with one another, and very often a set of common features that aren’t subject to change, no matter how much debate piles up around other aspects of the image.

The imaginary figure of Man, conqueror of Nature, parodied in last week’s post is exactly such an image. For the last few centuries, that has been the dominant image of humanity in Western industrial societies. As mentioned in an earlier post in this sequence, Man isn’t you, or me, or anyone else who ever lived or ever will live.  He’s a fictional character who plays the central role in the grand mythological narrative at the core of the civil religion of progress, the mythic hero whose destiny it is to conquer Nature and march gloriously onward and upward to the stars.

To refer to the abstraction Man as the protagonist of a hero myth is not merely a figure of speech, by the way. In a brilliant book, Narratives of Human Evolution, paleoanthropologist Misia Landau showed that the stories that have been spun around “the ascent of Man”—think about that phrase for a bit—are in fact classic hero tales embracing all the conventions of that very distinctive genre, complete with all the standard motifs that are traced out in studies of the subject by Joseph Campbell and other scholars of mythology.  She examines the classic nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts of human evolution in detail, and shows how in every case, the facts unearthed by scientific research were hammered into shape to fit a far from scientific narrative.

It probably needs repeating that the narrative in question is not evolution. The evolution of species is one of the facts unearthed by scientific research; in the case of the hominids, in particular, the rambling family tree that led from East African forest apes to the author and readers of this blog has been worked out in ample detail, backed up by an assortment of fossils and artifacts impressive enough that the term “missing link” dropped out of use a long time ago.  No, what’s happened is that the normal process by which a successful species adapted to challenging conditions and spread beyond its original ecosystem has been rewritten as the central myth of a civil religion and used to redefine the entire two million years or so of hominid existence in the image of the last three centuries of western history.

If you want to see the resulting mythology in full flower, all you need to do is pick up a book by an evangelical atheist who tries to deal with human history—Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is a good if well-aged example. It’s not just that every human society and historical epoch that comes up for discussion is judged according to its contribution to Man’s conquest of Nature, though this is generally the case; it’s the way that the conquest of Nature, or more precisely our conquest of Nature, the specific way of conquering Nature that modern industrial society thinks it’s engaged in, is treated as the only normal and natural goal of human aspiration, to such an extent that any deviation from that agenda has to be explained. Thus Sagan, in the book just cited, devotes an extended passage to trying to figure out why the ancient Roman world never got around to having an industrial revolution. The suggestion that they might have had better uses for their time and resources, needless to say, doesn’t enter into the discussion at all.

There’s a rich irony in the fact that very often, even those who hate Man, conqueror of Nature, and everything he stands for are as convinced as any Carl Sagan fan could be that this cultural construct, this abstract and arbitrary fictional character who represents nothing more solid than one civilization’s currently popular notion of human nature and destiny, is the simple and literal truth about our species. Those of my readers who’ve spent time in the peak oil blogosphere will have read plenty of posts and comments describing humanity as “the ecocidal ape,” helplessly programmed by its genetic heritage to blunder along its current path toward imminent extinction. This is the same myth of progress we’ve discussed here so often, changed only by having the black and white hats switched around. Man the enemy of Nature remains as central, strong-jawed, and omnipotent as in the more popular versions of the tale; it’s just that in this version he’s the villain and victim of the piece rather than its hero.

Now of course those who raise ethical questions about Man the conqueror of Nature as an image of human nature and destiny have a point—is it wise, or for that matter sane, to envision collective humanity as a megalomaniac in jackboots whose sole purpose in existing is to bully the entire universe into complying with his whims?—but there’s a deeper point at issue. The vast majority of humans, across the vast majority of the time our species have been around, have lived in relative balance and harmony with the ecosystems around them.  The vast majority of the exceptions have taken place either when humans reached a part of the planet they hadn’t settled before, when humans were in the early stages of adopting some new means of subsistence and hadn’t worked the bugs out yet, or when environmental changes driven by planetary forces have destabilized existing human ecologies and left the survivors scrambling to find some new means of subsistence. Other species in similar situations undergo the same kinds of crisis, and then find their way back to balance—and so do we.

It so happens that all of us were born and raised, and are descended from a dozen generations of people who were born and raised, during a period of drastic instability caused by the second factor just listed: some members of our species stumbled onto a new means of subsistence, which we haven’t yet figured out how to use in a sustainable manner, and at this point almost certainly never will. This sort of thing has happened many times before to our species, and to countless other species as well. One of the core features of our predicament, though, is that this unusual set of conditions is all any of us has ever known, and since human beings are noticeably less sapient than the moniker of our species would suggest, many of us have taken the temporary state of instability that’s dominated the last few centuries, and projected it onto the far from blank screen of human history and the universe as a whole.

One core dimension of the crisis of our age, in other words, is that our sense of the meaning and destiny of our species is well past its pull date. The image of Man the conqueror of Nature was adaptive, in the strict Darwinian sense, during the brief age of extravagance that arrived when we first figured out how to break into the planet’s cookie jar of fossil sunlight. Those who embraced that image prospered and reproduced their kind, both in the straightforward biological sense and in the subtler, cultural sense by which success attracts imitators. Now that the rate at which fossil fuels can be extracted from the planet is running up against hard geological limits, and the net energy yield from such exercises is stuck in a remorseless decline, the image of Man the conqueror of Nature has stopped being adaptive, but a significant lag time has opened up between that change in circumstances and the recognition that it’s time to find a less dysfunctional way to understand who we are and what we’re doing on this planet.

That’s a common challenge in individual psychotherapy, or so I’m told, and it’s certainly a challenge in the training of the personality that’s a crucial part of the spirituality I practice.  People reliably cling like grim death to the most disastrously dysfunctional self-images, and defend them fiercely against the suggestion that they could see themselves in a different way. Our need for a sense of stable identity is so powerful that many of us would rather be wretchedly miserable than risk the leap into the unknown that surrendering a self-image always involves. One of the great challenges of the teacher in an initiatory school—and I suspect that psychotherapists see things the same way—is to find ways to encourage students to get to the point at which they’re willing to risk treating their self-concepts as concepts, abstractions created by the mind, rather than simply the way things are.

The difficulty we face in the modern industrial world is that very few people have gotten to the point at which they’re willing to risk this same shift on a collective scale. There’s a voice calling out to all of us from the island of Paxi, announcing that Great Man is dead, but few are listening and fewer still show any willingness to carry the message to those who are waiting to hear it.  Thus we’ve circled back around to the place where this series of posts began, Friedrich Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, for it was that death—less metaphorically, the collapse of Christianity as the foundation of Western cultures—that made the manufacture of Man the conqueror of Nature as a collective human identity both possible and (in a certain sense) necessary.

The problem with Nietzsche’s proposed solution, in turn, was that it simply postponed for a little while the problem it was meant to address. The Overman, the free human being who flings himself into the abyss of a meaningless universe to give it meaning through a sacrificial act of endless self-overcoming, was never much more than a pale reflection of the Christian god, who descended into the universe of matter and human incarnation on much the same mission. It was a brave attempt but not a particularly smart one, and the results, both for Nietzsche and for the European society he proposed to put on new foundations, were far from good.

Dying, as it turns out, isn’t the only thing that gods do easily and human beings find considerably more awkward. Nietzsche may have been right when he wrote that “one must have chaos within one to give birth to a dancing star;” he certainly had the chaos, and arguably gave birth to the star, in the form of some of the most brilliant of all German prose and some of the most challenging philosophical writings in any language. Still, it’s probably fair to extend the metaphor a bit further, and suggest that the radiation emitted by his newborn star proceeded to fry his brain and reduce one of the keenest minds of Europe to the status of catatonic vegetable. As any astrophysicist could have told him, human beings are simply not equipped to give birth to stars.

In less metaphorical language, the ramshackle structures of the human mind tend to break down in predictable ways when pushed beyond the tasks for which evolution has equipped them. The plunge into nihilism I’ve discussed in several recent posts is one of these predictable malfunctions. In Nietzsche’s case, that ended up taking the form of a mental illness that, though it’s been blamed on syphilis, had all the symptoms and progressive course of acute schizophrenia, paranoiac at the time of his psychotic break in Turin and phasing gradually into catatonia before his death in 1900. In the case of European society as a whole, a strong case could be made that much the same thing happened in the half century or so after Nietzsche’s time:  the collapse of Europe into a maelstrom of war, delusion, and mass murder over the decades that followed the continent-wide psychotic break of 1914 was only brought to an end by the exceptionally harsh therapy of Russian and American tanks and bombs. 

In effect, Western cultures in the nineteenth century replaced their traditional monotheism with a newly minted monanthropism—a belief system that flattened out the rich diversity of humanity into a single abstract figure, Man, and loaded that figure with most of the titles and attributes of the divinity he was expected to replace. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century writings that referenced our species almost always made use of that capitalized abstraction, and proclaimed him the lord of creation, the goal of evolution, the inheritor of the cosmos, and so on through the whole litany of self-important hogwash that surrounded the human project in those days. At that time, as I’ve suggested, it was adaptive in a purely pragmatic sense; it helped to encourage the rapid growth of industrial systems during the brief historical epoch when abundant fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources made such systems possible. The downside of the experiment was that it left very few barriers in place to the barbarism of reflection, and those barriers fell down promptly once kicked by jackboots.

Still, the era when that expedient seemed to work is over, terminated with extreme prejudice by the relentless realities of dwindling resource stocks and an increasingly unstable biosphere. Whatever form the Second Religiosity of our age happens to take, whatever ways we and our descendants cobble together to counter the barbarism of reflection and keep the unsteady structures of human thought from the same plunge into chaos that left Nietzsche babbling incoherently with his arms around the neck of a beaten horse, among the basic requirements of the time before us are giving the conception of Man the conqueror of Nature a decent burial, and finding a way to imagine ourselves that has some relation to the realities of the human condition in a world on the far side of a failed industrial project.


On a different though related theme, I’m delighted to report that the industrial-music artist Laughlyn has just released an online “album” on the theme of my post An Elegy for the Age of Space. Give it a listen here.