(Read all Burning Book Club entries for this book here)
Since the book club’s taking an extra week to finish chapter 2 of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God,” I thought I’d follow-up on a common line of questioning from last week’s entry. Eagleton suggests near the end of chapter 1 that “Rationalized societies tend not only to impoverish their symbolic resources, but to pathologize them as well.”
A lot of people had questions about that.
I am going to try to address these questions, and to do so without mentioning Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with A Thousand Faces” even once. Although for many people I do think “Burning Man” functions as the “underworld” in Campbell’s much celebrated “Hero’s Journey.”
I should also note that this is only my own personal response to a text: Caveat’s bullshit, not Burning Man’s bullshit.
If reading the last four paragraphs already has you bored, for god sake don’t keep reading. Life is short! Go kiss somebody you have a crush on! Book Club will still be here next week. Don’t waste your life the way I have.
The fact that we even have to have this conversation at all is a testament to the odd nature of cultural secularization that Eagleton documents. Not only was there an incredibly long portion in Western history in which it would have been virtually impossible not to think of life in terms of sacred symbolism, but a majority of the world’s population still holds to many aspects of that worldview, taking their cues from pre-modernity. And yet we educated folk sit around wondering “What could someone possibly mean by that?”
In trying to address that question it strikes me as significant that the happiest nations on earth – as calculated by first world surveys – tend to be cultures with strongly pre-modern ties. Vietnam, Paraguay, and Bhutan all routinely end up in the top spots … while modern, Western, industrialized nations rarely crack the top 20, and are often way down the list.
This is not a simple binary: traditional does not automatically equal happy. Not by any stretch: but there is a clear trend to suggest that modern societies have a unique capacity to make people who have all the advantages in the world miserable. Given how privileged we are, why aren’t we happier?
Perhaps it’s because most of modernity’s fixes for basic human problems … depression, loneliness, purposelessness … only seem to exacerbate them. It’s not just that we’re famous for creating industrialized labor that alienates the people who perform it: it’s also that our cures for alienation actually make it worse. The development of anti-depressants has helped specific individuals, absolutely, but as a society our rates of depression have skyrocketed since their invention – we’re now more depressed AND addicted to a new set of pills. Social networking can be a wonderful tool with which to connect to others, but unless it is used as a springboard to in-person connections it leaves most people sadder and more lonely than they were when they started.
Our emphasis on rationalistic fixes has created problems that we only know how to exacerbate. Clearly something isn’t working. Modern societies appear to have broken something that they don’t know how to repair.
And this isn’t a surprise. Or wouldn’t be, if we were paying attention. We were warned this would happen.
Nietzsche, Mr. “God is dead” himself, warned us that this was coming … that we could not simply take God out of the center of the universe and go on as though nothing much had changed. Freud believed that the only way human beings in the modern world could keep from going crazy was through lifelong regimes of what we might call (but he never did) “educated repression” – determining that if our passionate desires were neurotic we’d have to either eliminate them or keep them at bay for the rest of our lives. Carl Jung, by contrast, sought to create a psychology that turned the world into a preserve for personal mythologies – the enchantment of the world wouldn’t be shared between us as it had been before, but the world could still be enchanted.
Viktor Frankl’s writing centers on the idea that those of us who can’t find meaning in the world are not long for it. Rollo May and Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers and James Bugental started the humanistic psychology movement precisely because they saw that people do not thrive when they are reduced to components by a world that denies them agency or humanity.
For the most part we didn’t pay attention – and so for all that we’re far more drugged and pampered and therapeutized than ever before, we’re more depressed and neurotic than ever.
Do you see where this is going? Even if you don’t believe a word of “religion” or “spirituality,” it’s important to acknowledge that these things didn’t develop in a vacuum. (And this account clearly leaves out the struggles of women and minorities, who have made tremendous gains through modernity – only to start succumbing to the same forces the closer they get to social parity.) For all their very real historical flaws, the mythic views of the universe that our elites have thrown aside in favor of data points served a vital purpose for human happiness and advancement. (Yes, advancement – it’s no accident that most of the great universities that lead to secular science were built by religious orders. The Pope, let us remember, funded Galileo’s research in the first place.)
It turns out that data points can’t do the job. The more we try to reduce human life to them, the more miserable we get. And … I would personally say … the further off the mark we go in the quest to understand the world around us. It’s not just a question of missing the forest for the trees: we’re cutting down the forest to produce textbooks to tell us what forests might once have looked like.
This is why Rollo May wrote, as late as 1991, “I find that contemporary therapy is almost entirely concerned, when all is surveyed, with the problem of the individual’s search for myths. The fact that Western society has all but lost its myths was the main reason for the birth and development of psychoanalysis in the first place.”
Myth doesn’t need to be explicitly supernatural. In a response to last week’s post, Larry Harvey quoted William James to make this point:
“The practical needs and experiences of religion are sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step.”
That hypothetically covers everything from “religious” to “spiritual” to “atheist” – it just has to be large enough for the next step.
“Symbolic resources” are the building blocks out of which we make the meaning that Jung and Frankl and the Humanistic Psychologists and the Self-Determination Theorists have proven (yes, through empirical studies – as if we needed them) is so vital to health, happiness, and personal growth. They are what the next step is made of.
This can apply on both a personal level, and a societal level – and ideally the two will intersect at various points. As James’ comment suggests, there’s a lot of room here: they’re not especially restrictive. But here are some conditions that I do think apply:
First, symbolic resources are qualitative, not quantitative. We’re not dealing with data points. We’re dealing with the story we tell to make sense of data points and the universe they’re a part of. There is no purely correct way of looking at data – no data set so pure as to be beyond interpretation. The more we pretend there is, the more miserable we tend to become.
Second, while symbolic resources need not be irrational, their success is not measured by their rational truth value – success is measured instead by their capacity to engender trust on the emotional level. Go back to the James quote above: “Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step.” It’s not enough – or even a requirement – for a symbolic resource to be literally true: the question is, does it inspire you to struggle, survive, and grow as a human being? Do you believe that if you lean on it, it will hold? If you don’t, it will not do, whatever other virtues it has.
Third, it needs to instill a sense of possibility rather than a sense of finality. If a potential symbolic resource leaves you shrugging and asking “so what now?” it won’t serve. If it instead suggests that there are new things you can try, new thoughts you can think, new directions you can go – if it inspires you to action – then it might. It has to create new stories, rather than ending arguments.
Fourth, symbolic resources also need to offer a sense of taboo. This is the symmetrical opposite of installing a sense of possibility: a symbolic resource also has to provide the building blocks that eventually justify not doing terrible things. If it does not have this authority… if it instead justifies anything you wants to do … it will likely crumble in short order. That’s the difference between a “symbolic resource” and a “convenient excuse.”
Finally, while symbolic resources can be abstract principles, they tend to be more effective as they get more specific, detailed, and grounded in experience. As Eagleton himself has pointed out in other texts: the symbol of the Christian religion is a righteous political prisoner, executed for speaking truth to power. To be a Christian is to be on his side. Independently of its truth value, that’s brilliant symbolism: it’s no wonder it has survived 2,000 years and crossed the world. Abstract ideas or principles don’t usually serve as well.
Put enough of those symbolic resources together … for an individual or (through a different process) a society … and a myth will emerge that sustains us and gives us a direction to advance in. The distinction between a supernatural myth and a “scientific” one is irrelevant here: both will hypothetically serve just as well. But there has to be one.
Yet most of the time, even the most scientifically vetted of symbolic resources will come out sounding like poetry. Even as rational an evangelist of science (and as big an enemy of philosophy) as Niel deGrasse Tyson, when trying to come up with a scientific worldview to guide us forward, ends up saying “One might even say we have been empowered by the universe to figure itself out.” Which, once you take the qualifier “one might even say” away … because God forbid anyone accuse him of actually meaning what he’s saying … is purely poetic language.
In my experience people come to Burning Man and, whatever their world view, leave with symbolic resources. Not because they believe in the 10 Principles, or they hear an argument that moves them, but because they have incredible, magical, experiences, that they cannot deny. They have concrete experiences that speak to their deepest humanity and convince them that the world is a place full of possibility. They might interpret this in a Burning Man context (“Wow, those 10 Principles” … or “The people here are SO SPIRITUAL”), or they might not: it is entirely possible for someone to interpret a Burning Man experience in Christian terms, or Buddhist terms, or Pastafarian terms.
The point is that they leave with more symbolic resources than they came in with. The next step becomes more visible. Regardless of where you take off your metaphysical boots at night, I think that’s what happens –and one of the ways Burning Man is influential and important to our culture.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com