URBAN STERILITY AND THE MODERN SOUL
The real tragedy of modern life is the overwhelming size of the largest cities. A majority of people are no longer in close or even regular contact with nature, with the pulsating life of natural phenomena, but are constantly surrounded by the man-made lifeless forms which constitute contemporary megalopolis. They live so close to concrete, steel, glass, lead, rubber, aluminium, plastic, etc., that they are invariably drained of a great deal of their vital life-force, drained, if you like, of spiritual potentialities which their less-urbanized ancestors generally experienced and doubtless took for granted, as the natural property of mankind. Shut out from regular contact with natural phenomena, with soil and crops and trees and flowers, they take on the quality of the sterile environments in which they live or, rather, exist, becoming increasingly like automata - soulless figures in a soulless world, that of the big city.
How painful it can be for anyone with a knowledge of the biological necessity of one's living in close proximity to nature ... to stand on the pavements in one of the more built-up parts of a big city and note the absence of vegetation! There are streets in most major cities where there isn't a tree or a bush or a flower in sight, where the inanimate so dominates the area that one seriously wonders how anyone can manage to survive there, so lunar is the resulting impression. And even on streets where some effort has been made to acknowledge nature, where a few small trees or saplings have been planted at regular intervals along the edge of the pavement - how inadequate they usually appear when contrasted with the predominantly commercial or industrial surroundings in which, one can only suppose, they are doomed to fight a losing battle, to languish pitifully and painfully in the indifferent and sometimes hostile environment of concrete, steel, glass, petrol fumes, noise, etc., which inevitably takes precedence over them!
How hateful to such a person, a person keenly aware of man's current plight, is the spectacle of crazy paving in so-called front gardens, where the residents are either too lazy to tend the soil or too busy doing other things to have any time for gardening, and have accordingly capitulated to the tyranny of concrete, abdicated their private right to stand-up for natural phenomena in a society whose ever-increasing preoccupation with the man-made, with artificial phenomena, is bringing about its own downfall and inevitable spiritual and moral death. For how can life, human or otherwise, possibly thrive in a society where the inanimate has come to play such a dominating role? Is it any wonder that the great majority of long-term city-dwellers appear so washed out, sickly and mean, or that their feelings are so often apathetic, shallow, callous, and negative?
No, of course not! You cannot spend the greater part of your life out-of-contact with the living pulse of nature and hope to remain healthy. Sterility begets sterility, and, by contrast to their more fortunate ancestors, the souls of a majority of contemporary people are most certainly sterile! They may not be completely dead, but they are undoubtedly a long way from being fully alive! If they have any feelings at all, such feelings either don't run very deep or are apt, in the worst cases, to turn negative. Their possessors are too greatly the victims of their lifeless environments to have any real comprehension of or empathy with the soul, to be in a position to properly grasp the significance of the cultural life from which modern civilization has irrevocably banished them. As idolaters at the shrine of the intellect, they can only concur with Nietzsche that "God is dead" and marvel that churches should still exist. For in relation to the maimed state of their souls and the preponderance of the inanimate, those manifestations of man's acknowledgement of the more-than-human - in short, of nature and that which presides over and also exists supernaturally above it - have indeed become anachronisms, scarcely to be countenanced by the modern mind.
As Spengler, the German philosopher of history, so eloquently informed us, 'the Civilization' of contemporary urban and industrial society is essentially the reverse of 'the Culture' of medieval and catholic spirituality, and whatever pertained to 'the Culture' can hardly be taken to heart in 'the Civilization', with its materialistic values. Truly, the West is indeed on the decline! Modern men are not the super-enlightened, anti-superstitious people that the liberal intelligentsia may prefer us to regard them as but, for the most part, unfortunate wretches who have lost or are in the process of losing their souls. They have simply been transformed, largely through environmental changes, from predominantly sentient beings into predominantly existential ones; from creatures firmly under the sway of the divine life-principle to creatures increasingly coming under the domination of its diabolic antithesis, and, without a shadow of a doubt, one is less fortunate in the latter context than in the former! It is better to be a soulful being in close contact with nature than a veritable automaton who has lost proper contact with it, because the society in which he lives, in becoming the victim of its industrial and technological genius, has increased its population to a point where cities are so large ... that the artificial comes to predominate over nature and to dominate people's lives, obliging them to live a kind of environmental blasphemy.
A kind of environmental blasphemy? Yes and no. 'Yes' because, objectively considered, whatever sets itself up against the natural order of life, and thereupon forces people to pervert themselves, must be an irreverence, a profanation, a hubris, in which man pits himself against the preordained nature of things through wilful disobedience and inevitably brings about his own downfall. Thus his anti-natural confinements and lifestyles in large cities could be seen as constituting a species of practical blasphemy.
However, a society in which, largely through the aforementioned reasons, "God is dead" ... can hardly be accused of blasphemous activities, insofar as it has ceased to have any genuine relationship with God, having changed its scale of values in accordance with purely secular or materialistic criteria. Such a society does not commit blasphemy when it indulges in heart transplants, for example, because the heart has ceased to mean anything beyond being a muscle which pumps blood through the body. It has been reduced, through the materialistic influence of urban civilization, to the literal status of a pump, which fights shy of any medieval, and hence cultural, associations with the "seat of the soul" or other figurative interpretations proper to 'the Culture'. Where formerly the heart, to all cultural purposes, was more soul than pump, it is now merely a utilitarian entity, subject to medical diagnosis, on a par with the liver or the kidneys! The figurative interpretation has been swept away to leave - what? A very matter-of-fact conception which ceases to appeal to the imagination but is in perfect accord with the scientifically-biased tendencies of urban man, who, having sacrificed his soul to his intellect, will doubtless regard the medieval estimate of the heart as an unnecessary superstition!
Such is how matters proceed on the temporal plane, where allegations of blasphemy would seem to be quite irrelevant. Shut off as it now is in its own urban isolation from adequate contact with nature, modern industrial society will probably proceed, if time permits, to develop heart surgery and perhaps even brain surgery to a point where the Frankenstein myth will become reality, where the creation of human monsters will be hailed as one of the great achievements of medical science, and the propagation of such monsters duly be sanctioned by the state, presumably with law enforcement or military security in mind!
Fortunately, modern society hasn't quite arrived at that point, but there can be little doubt that it is steadily advancing towards it with or without the guidance of prognoses, or symptoms, like Brave New World. Divorced, as it largely is, from the moral-world-order implicit in nature, such a society must increasingly fall victim to the immorality inherent in any perversion of that order, and thus eventually reap self-destruction. For much as it may prefer to wallow in its urban isolation, the natural-world-order still exists, both within and without, and won't tolerate persistent abuse for ever. In the long-run, we pay for our crimes against life, whether they have been inflicted upon us by society or inflicted upon society by us. Man is the ultimate loser, not God. [ I should like to assure the reader that the foregoing attack upon city life is not indicative of a form of Manichean dualism, whereby matter is considered evil and only the spirit, by contrast, good, since I have no desire to consider Nature, or natural phenomenal in general, inherently evil. On the contrary, if I regard the man-made as evil it is only so in excess, not in moderation. Thus the vast scale of the largest cities, with their detrimental effect upon the soul, compels me to regard them as being in opposition to Nature, and thus fundamentally evil.]
So what, if anything, can be done to reverse this trend and restore society to something like a healthy state of soul? Not much, it would appear. Having abandoned nature in the development of our principal cities, we can't very well return to it again. The large populations which were originally made possible by the Industrial Revolution have to be fed and housed somewhere, and so the necessity of people living in close proximity to one another in vast conurbations cannot reasonably be denied. Whatever the immediate future holds in store for us, we cannot possibly reverse the trend of 'the Civilization', to revert to Spengler, and thereupon effect a return to 'the Culture'. Our buildings, populations, industries, and technologies are the chief reasons for 'the Civilization', and they can only be accepted on their own terms. Knowing why we are in the position in which we now find ourselves may be of some interest to us, but it cannot reasonably be expected to open the way for a return to former and intrinsically superior standards. If there is a price, materially and spiritually, for everything, then Western civilization is no exception. The price we are paying, not only for our industrial and technological advances but also for our social and urban expansion, is a high one. It involves a loss of soul which would have horrified our cultural ancestors, accustomed as they generally were to a less-urbanized and more freely natural environment. The fertile 'Culture', in which they lived and for the most part spiritually thrived, was sold down river for the comparatively sterile 'Civilization' of today. Trapped, as a majority of us now are in the great cities which technological advances made possible, victims of the sterile pavements, roads, and buildings which surround and imprison us on all sides, we can only live in accordance with the spiritual limitations such an environment inevitably imposes upon one, only react in a modern way to the cultural riches of the past.
Strange though it may seem, even the greatest of our technological achievements are inherently inferior to the greatest cultural achievements of the past. The television, radio, gramophone, aeroplane, rocket, car, train, computer, telephone, etc., may all be wonderful inventions and phenomena of which Western man can justifiably be proud. But by comparison with the greatest paintings, music, poetry, literature, cathedrals, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, etc., of the past, they signify a secondary order of achievement. Why? Because 'the Culture' takes precedence over 'the Civilization'. Because the creation of works in, and made possible by, a largely natural environment is superior to the creation of works in, and made possible by, a largely artificial one. Because the spirit is naturally superior to the intellect, and works which testify to spiritual greatness can only take precedence over those testifying to intellectual greatness. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that we live in an age which, no matter how great its technological achievements, is intrinsically inferior to the one that preceded it. We have shut ourselves off from nature to such an extent that our souls, deprived of the nourishment they require to thrive, have generally atrophied and accordingly ceased to govern our conduct. Handed over to the intellect, as to a hangman, we have become increasingly like automata, bereft of feeling, enthusiasm, imagination, strong desire, real creative power. Our souls are still there of course, but, like invalids in a sick ward, they function in a thoroughly thwarted and enfeebled manner.
Those of us who remain loyal to the Arts, whose business it is to leave a cultural record of the times, are acutely aware of this, and whether the name be Bacon, Moore, Beckett, or Tippett, the record left is not one that anyone with a healthy, well-nourished soul would care to witness! In an age when the soul is starved and maimed, the most sincere artists have no alternative but to convey, through whichever medium they exploit, the prevailing spiritual condition, to offer a protest on behalf of the sick soul, and thus acquire for themselves a relatively negative status. This is, needless to say, a deeply regrettable situation! For no genuine artist wishes to convey negative feelings and impressions if he can possibly avoid doing so! The greatest art is ever a highly positive phenomenon, a record of spiritual wealth, a testimony to spiritual wellbeing. Such it generally was from approximately the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, when cultural activities were uppermost. But from the late-eighteenth century a reversal of this trend increasingly began to set-in, as, with the expansion of his towns and cities, man grew progressively more estranged from nature and forced into an increasingly unnatural lifestyle. Not surprisingly, the artist, no less than most other people, felt the impact of this environmental transformation, and, if he didn't attempt to flee from it by portraying imaginary realms of the past, and thus creating an inferior because largely irrelevant brand of art, was obliged to record its effects upon his soul and, by analogy and observation, the souls of the men of his generation or time. Needless to say, the closer one comes to the present the more, by a corresponding degree, the true artist is obliged to convey feelings and impressions of a lower, coarser, more chaotic and sickly nature. The genuine artist invariably has to do this, since he must relate to the spiritual context of the age, not desert it for some historical or fantastic realm of compensatory illusion or, worse still, desert the realm and function of art itself by endeavouring to glorify that which is fundamentally antithetical to art, that which pertains exclusively to 'the Civilization' rather than to 'the Culture', and takes an overly materialistic form.
Thus there can be no question of the genuine artist, the genuine painter, shall we say, creating works which glorify the machine, industrialism, technological advance, large-scale urbanization, science, etc., because such phenomena run contrary to the domain of art and are essentially inimical to it. Art is for ever at the service of the divine ideal, the ideal dependent upon and stemming from nature, which treats of the life of the soul. Hence its allegiance to religion, myth, people, and the feelings which these phenomena inspire. When the divine ideal is uppermost, as it must be when artificial environments aren't too extensive, art attains to its greatest peaks. But as soon as this ideal is threatened and eventually supplanted by the diabolic ideal ... with its priority on intellect, reason, technological advance, science, etc., art inevitably declines, being in legion with the soul. As we have seen in recent decades, it can decline to a very low level. But it cannot disappear altogether, for the simple reason that nature and the divine ideal cannot completely disappear, even in the most materialistic of societies. No matter how ugly a given painting may be, it is still art if it remains loyal to the natural foundations upon which true art is built. Inferior art it may well be, but in an age which is hostile to the arts, where inferior art is the best that can be expected, it is still preferable to both anti-art and the prospect of no art at all.
Concerning anti-art, there are, I believe, fundamentally two main kinds. Firstly, there is the kind of production which, in turning its back on the natural concerns of genuine art, seeks to identify with or draw inspiration from the machine, technology, science, urbanization - in sum, from those predominantly artificial factors appertaining the 'the Civilization'. A majority of vorticist and cubist paintings are undoubtedly of this order, reflecting a futile attempt at sex-change, so to speak, on the part of art. But just as a man will cease to be masculine if he undergoes a sex-change, so art ceases to be art when it abandons its legitimate role in support of 'the Culture' and goes over to 'the Civilization'. As far as art is concerned, there can be no question of its identifying with or drawing inspiration (sic) from science and technology! Whatever seeks to do so is anti-art, which is intrinsically inferior to poor art.
Aside from this manifestation of anti-art, however, which has more recently manifested itself in op(tics) and kinetics, there is a second and possibly more prevalent manifestation at large in the Western world, which usually takes the form of anarchy and destruction. Perhaps abstract expressionist paintings are the chief offenders here, though there are undoubtedly a great many expressionist, dadaist, and surrealist works which are equally guilty of making war on art through their practitioners either failing to understand the true nature of art or refusing to accept that art is still possible. In this kind of production, there may be a pleasure in destruction for destruction's sake, with a total disregard for the rules and principles of art carried out in a thoroughly anarchic manner. If art is no longer possible, then one must do one's bit to illustrate this point by making as chaotic a mess of painting as possible. Such, one feels, would be the credo of the purveyors of this second kind of anti-art who, not being genuine artists themselves, doubtless cherish a private satisfaction that circumstances enable them to do what they do without incurring widespread public disdain. Lacking a deep sense of tradition, the anti-artists are all-too-ready, one way or another, to identify themselves with modern times, to turn against art with the kind of atheistic loathing one might expect from a scientist or an industrialist, and to produce works - if such they can be called - which probably appeal to these latter as being largely in accord with their own materialistic mentalities!
Fortunately to say, there are still genuine artists to be found in the world, artists whose work, while not being particularly great by Medieval or Gothic or Rococo standards, is nevertheless preferable to anything the anti-artists might produce. Aware of the artist's function in society, such men continue to grant allegiance to the soul, to the divine ideals inherent in nature. Whatever the styles they have adopted, the soul is portrayed as it is or appears to be in contemporary life, portrayed in the abject condition to which it has been reduced by progressive industrialization and urbanization, and thus portrayed with an underlining implication of despair, dejection, outrage, horror, etc., as the case may be, but never with either defeatism or acquiescence in the status quo! So far as our spiritual/cultural life is concerned, things may never have been worse. But the genuine artist, if he can survive, will not be one to throw in the towel, as it were, and go over to the enemy's camp. If he cannot be the good conscience of the age, the recorder of positive feelings, then he must be its bad conscience and offer the world or the society in which he exists the distorted reflection of its starved and maimed soul in the mirror of his art. And offer it, moreover, in the most accurately reflective of contemporary terms. For any painter who is not also the critic of his age, whether positively, as in the past, or negatively, as in the present, is not really an artist at all, but either a charlatan or a traitor. Now what applies to painters applies no less to writers, sculptors, and musicians, who must serve the cause of the soul in opposition to any mechanistic principles 'the Civilization' may have put in their way.
Admittedly, where many modern works are concerned, particularly in painting, it may be difficult to distinguish genuine artists from sham artists. For the artist is obliged to record such a pitiful state of soul, these days, that his works are often as chaotic and repulsive-looking as those of the anti-artists who set themselves up against him in their glorification of materialism. In extreme cases, the ultimate criterion must rest with the artist himself, who should know whether his work is a reflection of contemporary society or an abdication of art, a criticism, implicit or otherwise, of technological domination or an unabashed acquiescence in it. But, generally, it should be possible for one to form a fair estimate as to which side of the cultural fence a given work is on - whether it is poor art or no art at all, according to the nature of the subject-matter (if any) and the way in which it is treated. Where no criticism of the modern environment is apparent, as mostly transpires to being the case with vorticist, cubist, op, and kinetic works, one can be pretty certain that one is in the realm of anti-art. For the cold, mechanical objectivity and impersonality of such forms betrays an allegiance to the technological age from which they spring, and cannot possibly be equated with genuine art. In terms of fidelity to the soul, even the most hideous or pathetic-looking expressionist painting will be of a superior order of creation to the most intricate and aesthetically-arranged cubist painting, if it corresponds to the artist's anguish of soul in the face of contemporary materialism. Poor art it may be, but at least it will be art, not a double-crossing, self-deceiving identification with contexts inherently inimical to the spirit and thus to art in general, or, as in the case of many less-representational works, an identification with destruction for destruction's sake, or chaos for the sake of chaos, as befits the other kind of anti-art, of which dada is a notable example. If we do not perceive a protest on behalf of the sick soul in an age which has turned against the soul, we do not experience an artist!
That the condition of the soul he is reflecting is unlikely to get better but, on the contrary, to grow still worse, shouldn't prevent him from making his protest or criticism known. Doubtless, he will have to adjust his interpretation of the soul's worsening condition in accordance with the degrees of its worsening, and we shall judge him on the basis of his accuracy in pinpointing those degrees, according to environment, and reflecting our actual state, not underestimating or overestimating it. Irrespective of the fact that he has no option but to produce poor art, the finest artist will continuously be the best diagnostician of the soul, even if, through no fault of his own, he cannot also be the doctor who cures it. If we do not like his diagnosis - and it has to be admitted that a majority of contemporary people certainly don't - then we have no alternative but to accept it, to see it as a legitimate concern of his, and to treat that concern with due respect. The temptation not to do so is, however, very real, particularly since it casts such a poor reflection upon ourselves and is so painful to behold!
We needn't be surprised, therefore, if the genuine artist is becoming an increasingly feared and hated member of society. For his frank portrayal of our sickness is not the most flattering of achievements, and by no means the most conscience-quieting! No wonder that so many industrious citizens should privately - and sometimes publicly - be of the opinion that artists ought to be done away with! Aren't they a luxury we can no longer afford? Aren't they a damn nuisance, what with their ugly and mean creations, their stunted caricatures of upstanding people? What has become of art?
Yes, but why not, rather, what has become of our souls ... that artists should be obliged to portray us in such an ignominious fashion? And what would become of us if we got rid of all artists, all genuine artists, that is, and thereby lost contact with the state of our souls altogether, lost contact, that is to say with a record of the extent of their sickness? Surely it would be a more unfortunate thing to blunder-on in the darkness of our technological preoccupations, without anyone to remind us of the harm we are doing to ourselves, than to have a record of it there right before our eyes, like a bad conscience, pinpointing the extent of our spiritual deprivation! Why don't we give the artist a welcome opportunity to paint less disconcerting and possibly more agreeable paintings, by improving our standard of living, i.e. by reverting to a social environment less detrimental to our souls?
Alas, I think I made it sufficiently clear, in the opening paragraphs of this essay, that such a reversion was out of the question! For we cannot do away with millions of people and pull down thousands of buildings in order to bring nature closer to us, when these people and buildings are an integral part of our current system, our industrialized lifestyles. Yet it is the very fact of our being so cut off from nature which has made for our spiritual sickness - such as it is.
No, social expediency and common decency prohibit any drastic measures aimed at restoring our souls to a healthy condition! We have no alternative, short of suicidal madness, but to accept things for what they are and resign ourselves to living in 'the Civilization', the age of little feeling and great intellect. Thanks to industrial progress the human population of the West was enabled to increase as never before, and, consequently, the cities were obliged to expand as never before, to shut out more and more of the pulsating life of natural phenomena, thereby confronting the bulk of their inhabitants with the urban sterility to which we have grown so painfully accustomed. No wonder that our souls began to atrophy and our minds to become increasingly atheistic! Isn't it perfectly logical, perfectly inevitable? Imprisoned in our concrete hells, we could no longer feel God, no longer relate to natural phenomena. We had no option but to adjust to an inferior lifestyle, to resign ourselves to the death-in-life which our sterile environments were imposing upon us, and put our trust in the future of the machine. Abandoning God, we entered 'the Civilization', as upon an epoch of Hell, a few to become disillusioned by the course of events, many to fall victim to the great liberal delusion of universal progress and enlightenment.
Progress? Yes, technological advancement there certainly was and, needless to say, continues to be. But personal spiritual improvement? Not a hope! We progressively reduced ourselves to our current state of enfeebled feeling and tyrannous intellect, and called the result enlightenment, an emancipation from the soul, a kind of liberation from life. And so, having starved our souls of natural phenomena and maimed them amidst all the artificial phenomena which we either chose or were obliged to impose upon them, we managed to get along without religion. For religion is an acknowledgement of life, more specifically the life of the soul, and when one no longer lives but merely exists in existential lunacy - ah! then there is no point in religion, is there?
No, none at all! Though we needn't be surprised or offended if there are still priests of one sort or another to be found amongst us, men who, like genuine artists, are there to remind us that we still have souls, if rather maimed ones, and will doubtless continue to remind us of this fact (even if they cannot do anything to heal them), until such time as our civilization either destroys itself or is destroyed from without. But let us not forget that priests, no less than artists, are representatives of a higher and better kind of life, even if, like artists, they are generally looked down upon in this day and age as nuisances, madmen, and anachronisms. Less soulful they may well be than their more fortunate forebears, who lived in healthier times. But if they are true to their vocation, they will still know that a life governed by the soul is superior to an existence lived in the intellect. For, as Christ said: "What does it profit a man if he gains the world but loses his soul?"
I believe that we are in a better position to appreciate the value of such a rhetorical question now than ever before, since we have first-hand evidence of what it means to exist in a world inimical to life. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with its invocation to "become hard", may well be the leading testament of 'the Civilization', but it is somewhat inferior, in essence, to the leading testament of 'the Culture', which circumstances have largely obliged us to ignore. We have indeed become hard, even harder than the negative theologian who invoked us to could have imagined or would probably have wanted. But in the cyclical development of life, which Nietzsche himself endorsed, it is perhaps to be hoped that, if humanity can survive any future catastrophe which science or technology may have in store for it, a time will come when we shall become, if not exactly soft, then at least well-balanced again, when people will know what it means to live on the higher plane of their souls in close contact with nature, rather than on the lower plane of their intellects in close contact with all the life-denying forces of the big city. In the meantime, we can only persevere with our condition and at least try to get our facts straight. A knowledge of our plight is better than an ignorance of it, no matter how seemingly hopeless things may now appear.