Monday, August 18, 2003

9. Missing Middle Syndrome

By Jack Whelan

In the last column I wrote about the connection between the way Puritanism still makes itself felt in the American brand of the modern mind. Modernity is a much broader phenomenon than can be explained so simply, but I do think that Puritanism is an important theme that must be dealt with in any attempt to understand the American cultural attitudes. Moby Dick is our national story.  The Puritan mind seeks out the infernal in its various manifestations with a compulsive need to eradicate it.  It used to be symbolized by papists and Indians; now it’s Arabs.  It used to be alcohol; now it’s tobacco. If we accept Melville as our national prophet, we must accept that this is a collective psychology that leads to inevitable disaster

But the violent, repressive tendencies of the right-wing Puritan are complemented by its opposite.    The secular rationalist tendencies in American culture compose what I would describe as the left-wing of the Puritan mind. If right-wing Puritanism tends toward an angelism that wants to eradicate the irrational as it manifests in the instinctual, the left wing tends toward the secular materialist mentality typified by Darwinist thinking—humans are merely animals who are ontologically no different from apes, whales, and porpoises except for their superior brain power.

Leftwing Puritanism is more radically rationalist than the right wing, and in a curious way therefore more “spiritual” because of the priority it gives Mind.  But its rationalism drives it to affirm only what is given by the senses, and so the left-wing understanding of Mind is utterly and paradoxically materialistic.  Perhaps in another column we can explore that paradox, but the point is that for the left-wing Puritan anything that is not given through the senses is mysticism, and there is hardly a word with more pejorative connotations in the left-wing Puritan’s vocabulary.  If right-wing Puritans see human beings as angels who have bodies that they’d rather not have to deal with, the left wing sees the human being as only a body, and any reference to the angelic or spiritual element is illusory.  If the right wing mistrusts what is “below” in the sub-rational animalistic, and instinctual, the left wing mistrusts what is “above” in the angelic, intuitive, and super-rational.

There you have American Calvinist-dominated culture succinctly, if somewhat simplistically, summarized. The angelism of the right wing is symbiotically linked to the materialism and instinctualism of the left; one’s the flip side of the other.  It’s a conflict most famously symbolized in the Scopes trial, and is being played out now in the ornament war in which the evangelical Christians’
ichthys—the fish symbol you see all over the place on the trunks of cars and trucks—is being swallowed by the smart-assed Darwinian, legged version of the same symbol.  Creationism is nutty, but so is secular materialism in another way; it’s just the nuttiness of intellectuals, so it has more style.

This left/right intramural argument is going nowhere.  There has to be a middle way.  When I talk about Progressive Traditionalism, I'm really talking about a cultural project that would be about restoring the middle. Finding balance rather than gyrating from Prohibition to Woodstock to Ashcroft every forty years or so.  But it’s not like I really know what I’m talking about yet.  I’m still groping.  Here’s a preliminary attempt to think through some of the basic issues.

The rationalist impulse out of which bourgeois Puritanism grew began in the Christian West with Peter Abelard and culminated with Sigmund Freud. Abelard was the most famous of the 12th Century nominalists at the University of Paris who challenged the Neoplatonic conventional thinking that ideas derive from archetypes in the mind of God or the Logos.  He was the best known of a group of thinkers who were the precursors the modern language philosophers who argue that words are just names, convenient labels we give things.  The older tradition understood words to be much, much more than that.

But this is not the place to get into a full-blown discussion of the epistemological arguments and counterarguments made at the time—or about their relevance today. (I’m inclined to think that the Neoplatonists had it more right.) His significance lies in what he symbolized as a shift in how the best minds in the west began to think about thinking.  Thinking was no longer a kind of participation in the divine mind; thinking simply became a reflection on the data given to the mind by the senses.  Thinking in the west from that point on gradually focused only on what could be known through the bodily senses.  And the end result was the kind of human being that C. S. Lewis describes in
The Abolition of Man as the hollow man, the man with no chest, and whom we recognize today as the civilized modern bourgeois.  He’s all brain and genitals, but no middle, no soul.

It took several centuries to produce such a type in the West; the soul-centered, premodern, magical, shamanic way of experiencing the world lingered tenaciously in the rural countryside, among the illiterate, and in the Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Latin American cultures which were more resistant to the Modern impulse.  But by the time Freud came upon the scene, there was a significant constituency of top-heavy, fat-headed men and hysterical women.  But top-heavy guy that Freud was, he saw the problem not about the missing middle, but about a repressed bottom.  And so his main accomplishment was to rebalance Victorian angelism  by opening up the tap to release repressed instinctualism of the civilized West.

Nineteenth-century Victorian culture, was extraordinarily head centered in its Gnostic/puritanical rejection of life impulses beneath the neck, which led to the kind of problems that Freud tried to understand. And the model Freud eventually developed was one in which there was a kind of opposition between the goals of civilized life and the goals of human instinctual life. The task for psychotherapy became to find a kind of balance between the brain and the genitals.

It is no wonder that the earliest psychotherapists were called alienists because they saw their task as helping their patients to bridge the rift between a kind of head-centered angelism and a genitally-centered instinctualism, a split that Freud thought could never be bridged in any deeply satisfactory way.  The best that could be achieved for the healthy bourgeois post-Freud was to find a balance between the head-centered fulfillments of career and work and the genitally centered pleasures to be found in the erotic.  No notice was taken of the still missing middle—not at least until Jung pointed it out.  But no one (except flakes) took him very seriously.  But soul is the only thing that can bridge the gap.

Before developing this further, a final note on the Abelard story regarding his famous romance with Heloise. After achieving some fame as a brilliant philosopher, he was hired to tutor the very smart and very beautiful Heloise.  One thing leads to the other as things do, and they become involved in a torrid affair (It’s all documented in A’s autobiography melodramatically entitled
Historia Calamitatum. There he tells how he and Heloise were secretly married and Heloise gave birth to a son whom, hip couple that they were, they named Astrolabe.   Kind of like someone today calling their kid Microchip).  Unfortunately, Heloise’s Uncle finds out, and he is not amused.  He sends some thugs chez Abelard in the middle of the night, who rouse him out of bed and de-johnson him.  Abelard goes on to a glorious if controversial career, and Heloise languishes, locked away in a convent where she pines for Abelard until the end of her days.  Don’t know what happened to Astrolabe.

I’m probably pushing this too far, but there is a larger story being told here. Abelard’s castration is emblematic of the cultural trend that symbolically began as the male loss of his capability to truly connect with the feminine, and by extension the anima mundi, the soul of the world.  This trend culminated in the modern period in the modern mind’s having developed a completely demystified understanding of nature—it’s just so many atoms randomly combining this way and that.  And this has led on the one hand to the shriveling of the soul, particularly in the Western male, while on the other his brain hypertrophies. Men during Ableard’s millennium have compensated for their loss by raping the planet with their brains looking for they know not what, and all the while what they long for most is locked away.

So sure, women are angry for being locked away.  But underneath that is the pining, and they pine for the same thing men do, which is the lost connection.  The difference lies in that the women, at least until recently, had a clearer idea about what had been lost.  What men long for, but now more than ever women, too, is the missing middle.  Our collective soul-less condition is “Missing Middle Syndrome.”  

You women out there, think about it.  Isn’t this really what frustrates you most about the men in your life?  I think it explains a lot.  You might connect intellectually; you might connect sexually.  But something still isn’t there--a level of intimacy that is easier find with other women because they are not as soul-dead yet as men are.  Of course, if by some fluke you have a soulful, sensitive man, you’re probably angry at him because he won’t go out and get a job. He's allergic to the soul-deadening corporate workplace and would suffocate there.

Men want something so badly and women symbolize that for most of them, and they don’t really know what it is, and they certainly don’t know how to get it.  That’s really the story behind Don Juan.  His is not the story of a crude sensualist, but of a clueless guy with Missing Middle Syndrome who thinks that each time he beds a woman, she will be the one to give him what’s missing, which is his soul. It usually doesn’t work; if it did, he’d stop.  Don Juan and his early modern cousin Faust, a rationalist at the end of his rope, are archetypes of the missing middle and as such they symbolize the empty, restless spirit of modernity.  Both are looking for what’s missing, but going about it rather ineffectively.  Give them credit for trying; at least they’re not vegging out in front of the tube.

The central point I want to make is that while this trend is at least a thousand years old, it’s come to a critical juncture in the twentieth century during which the combined effect of the changing role of women and the growing encroachment of techno-commercial values into every facet of contemporary life has all but extinguished the lingering, atavistic vestiges of premodern soul culture in the West.  This has led to a condition which is not new in the West; it’s just affecting more people than ever before, and the result is the profoundly disorienting experience of a collective soul vacuum, and the culture dislodged from its traditional moorage has been drifting in fragmented confusion for some time now looking for ways to compensate for its loss.  

So then back to where we began which is the hope for a soul-centered cultural renaissance.  My sense is that it’s the women who will take us there because they are not as far gone.  The best we men can do at this point is talk a good spell about what’s wrong and why, but we’re as dim witted as ever when it comes to finding real solutions, especially if the solutions require any soul sense, which they do.  Sure men got us here--it was a male-driven historical impulse from Abelard to Freud that drove us out of the fertile soul world below up into the arid, barren, sun-drenched mountain tops of modern rationality. It was something we had to do.  But it will be the women who lead us down into the fecund valley again.

A lot of women have come up to the mountain top and sniffed around and learned pretty quickly that this was no place to live a life.  They picked up what they needed there, and have already started back down to where the climate is more hospitable.  And the men will follow them down because while it might have been interesting climbing to the top, once you get there it gets old.  It’s old already, and that’s why we talk about what we’re in right now as the postmodern.  The modern Enlightenment impulse is spent; it’s time for something new.


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