97. Modesty (III)
The search for rebirth and cleansing—palingenesis—has a political and personal aspect. In politics, beyond the conservative, concerned with holding what has been gained, the radical is interested in restoration and rebirth. This question is, in turn, intimately connected to religion because religion literally means “to rebind”: religion is a discipline that allows us to cleanse ourselves and return to innocence after moving in the world.
Art and science share the same root: an innocent engagement with the world that is devoid of cleverness. This is the child-like state of awareness; simply noticing. Hence Jesus and Buddha say that the kingdom of God belongs to the child—as does Heraclitus. The young child, having no preconceptions, notices the world about them. They make observations without guile. The world is a mystery and they move from one chain of observations to the next without constraint. This state does not last and when the child becomes a teenager they become clever. Now they watch other teenagers and attempt to look cool; they become mimics, afraid to be caught out in their lies. In pronounced cases, they become narcissists: they only have their act and have completely forgotten how to make their own observations.
Society requires a prohibition on noticing to work at all; this function, policed by shame, is the priestly feminine role: it places people under observation and makes them feel bad about what others think of them. It is only the mystic, outside society, who can live in a permanent state of blissful awareness. He is not even constrained by clock time and so lives in eternity—the endless summer of childhood. Hence the mystic is seen as both good and wicked—as was Rasputin—and people cannot place him, since he is without guile; he does and says the most affecting things, but he also does and says terrible things. When the radical right demands that people “wake up” and “notice” what they mean is for people to stop moralisation and simply—like a good artist or scientist or mystic—follow their observations into the mystery.
The religious man is not destroyed by being a “bad” person; he can wade through filth and clean himself, rather like a cat—itself a dweller between two worlds. Indeed, the awakened man can eat filth and turn it into beauty. Unfortunately, our priesthood is broken: we have academics and journalists instead of priests, but they only know how to moralise and shame. Hence everyone feels dirty, but they cannot get clean; they scratch at the dirt with charity or virtue signals, but this is merely about appearances. Mystics are rare. Some people achieve awareness through LSD or hallucinogenics, since these destroy their social act and leave them open to a innocent awareness of life; it is an imperfect method, though.
Our civilisation has grown clever and self-conscious, it has grown teenage; it is drowning in irony and sarcasm. Infinite Jest (1996) is an extremely clever book with footnotes on footnotes and in-jokes and in-references galore. David Foster Wallace, the author, was at pains to be “a nice person”; eventually, he killed himself: he was so clever and nice he could not feel a thing, and so all the anger he channeled into sarcasm and irony turned on him. By contrast, Homer is naïve and vigorous; he does not need to be clever or nice. Homer is young, even though he is ancient; and this is the quality of the sage. Teenagers are too clever for heroes and innocence, but young children and old men know that heroes and innocence are real. There is no mystery for the teenager: there is instead rigid narrative control to look good, everything is known and so everything is dead—only dead things never change. We have too many of these permanent adolescents in the West; many of these people are pretending to be serious and responsible figures—“the adults in the room”—when they would cause less damage behaving like toddlers.