And Darkness – III/IV

Society silences human voice, which is why the traditional model was obligatory public lip service with true thoughts only spoken behind closed doors with the absolutely trusted. This is natural and right, not the social media model of saying everything in public; it’s like spying on yourself for the Stasi. If you try to say anything in public, or with someone who doesn’t trust you or doesn’t have the mental fortitude to listen, then what you will find is your sentences getting finished for you in ways you never intended or desired. People might approve of you, or disapprove of you, but it doesn’t matter, because you will never be understood, not by society on a whole, and they will turn you into something you are not. People tend to go along with this, accepting the rejection of “haters” at face value and taking on the values of those who support them. This part, at least, is not new, but it’s always been pathetic. Who wants to be so flimsy that they just believe what people tell them to believe?

Closed doors, hushed voices, and hell, anonymity on the internet all let you escape the world’s gaze. If you’re with people you trust, you can say exactly what you think (the corollary: be trustworthy, and let those who trust you say what they think – disagreement is fine, but not deciding their words for them), while anonymity means that any identity that the world lays strictures on can be shed like unwanted skin.[1]

This is how to shelter oneself, but to understand what that means, we need to return again to darkness.

A working definition of maturity is: the ability to provide definition, which is identical to a lowered need to receive definition. Restated in other metaphors and aspects, that is the ability to define one’s social sphere in contrast to being defined by it, or being able to produce light instead of needing it. In practical terms, it’s the self-reliance needed to judge rather than be told what judgments to accept.[2]

This means that one must be willing to live in the dark.

I’ve been praising the dark as shelter, which it is. Dark shelters us from light, from the eyes of others, and makes us free. In the dark, anything is possible: there’s no telling what lies in the shadows, and there are no limits on what you can do. There are possibilities, more than you can count, stretching away from you farther than you can see. The world itself could be – anything. This is why it is terrifying.

The truth is that the world, the true world, is hideously undefined. We live in the slightest gleaming of knowledge in an unreal mass of the unknown and unknowable, and perceiving that brings terror. There is little that you believe that is based on anything, anything but (at best) specious connections. People love bringing math in around here; math is not the point, the point is not what you know (often false in any case) but what you believe, what guides your actions. Alone has written much on this from the perspective of psychiatry, and Lovecraft uses it as his main theme. There’s something even worse, though, that both only hint at: you can do anything. Anything. Seriously, there are incredibly low limits on the possibilities. “You can’t fly!” Yeah, but you can get a pilot’s license and get close. “What about/if…” You’re throwing up smokescreens, using your imagination to protect you from reality. Oblige me, use it to start thinking of all the things you can do. “But if I do that, then…” Yes, there are consequences. But you can still do it. Everything is permitted. Take some time to really chew on that. Everything. Meditate on the idea. Succumb to it.

Recognize that feeling? That’s horror. Yes, just like Heart of Darkness.

That’s the truth of human nature. Free will is free, and free doesn’t just mean no gutter rails, it means it doesn’t matter whether there are gutter rails, you’ve got a twenty-pounder in hand and nobody says you’re bowling anyway. You wanna talk God is dead, there it is, the meaning of the term is absolute freedom which is total absence of independent structure and meaning. The specifics are impossible to detail with words, because the horror there is precisely in that there’s no words that can adequately describe what’s going on (which is why the literature on it always skirts around having to use explicit language where it can – see Lovecraft for the most popular example). Freedom, total freedom, this kind of posing in the dark, is existential agony, it’s Sarte’s nausea, it’s Camus’ absurd, it’s the madness of Ivan Karamazov. In each of these cases, you may note, the author hides the true extent of this horror by focusing on one detail to the exclusion of the rest, which is called fetishizing, which you may recognize: a fixation on something that shelters from a deeper absence. With Sartre, it’s the root and the definitional bounds of the natural world; with Camus, it’s the question of suicide; with Dostoevsky, it’s his own take on Turgenev’s nihilism, which is the closest of all but still holds the real thing just a little at arm’s length. No judgment there; it’s not a pretty thing, if we’re to understand “gibbering insanity” as something to avoid. Total freedom is intolerable, which is why people don’t tolerate it.

No, this isn’t an excuse to plug #opiateofthemasses, the thing or the meme, because religion is not the same as eschewing metaphysical responsibility, did you forget that religious folk can argue about morality too? And aren’t the child-like youth of today less religious than ever? The truth is, the arguments “God wills it, so there’s nothing that can be done about it,” “it’s a fact of biology, so there’s nothing we can do about it,” and “it’s part of capitalism, and we’re too weak to beat it” are not only the same form of argument, they are literally identical. There’s different justifications used for the absolute declaration of external and immutable power, but all of them are generated as explanations, post-facto narratives, to explain and justify a pre-existing sense of powerlessness, a defense against change.[3]

In a traditional system, this is where maturity would step in, towards the end of adolescence. The youth gives up being edgy and different and starts attending the regular sacrifices just like everyone else, which may be literal (ancient Greece, Rome) or figurative (communion), but which unite a people into a common frame of understanding. Basic judgments common to the system are accepted, such as codes of conduct, virtue and its opposite, how to make potato salad, and so on, and these provide a stable foundation for the new adult to live their life and do the main thing adults are responsible for, which is to act, to make micro-judgments in accordance with the overall framework so that the world can keep on chugging. This is in contrast to the play-acting of childhood and adolescence, where we disavow responsibility for our actions (and so maintain innocence and flexibility). The adult may not have come up with the whole system, but they sure as hell have to be responsible for their individual actions, or else you get a society of children, and we know how that ends. In old age (or acting somewhat in that role), it’s the responsibility of the elder to take full responsibility for the existing system as a whole, which is why it’s appropriate for chief religious/academic/political figures to be old, because how’s a kid supposed to pretend responsibility for something they’ve only just been dropped into?[4]

But after the death of God, there is no such thing as tradition, not any longer. Existing metaphysics have been eradicated, existing culture is gutted, and there isn’t especially a cultural framework for adolescents to rejoin. [This phenomenon has likely been repeated on a small scale throughout history with any major cultural upheaval, but we’re currently seeing the displacement of theological metaphysics by material-scientific facts, which seems to be a little bigger than, say, Roman cultism -> Christian catholicism.] When an adolescent is ready to join adulthood, there are fewer and fewer judgments and values that they’re able to effectively adopt wholesale, which means they end up effectively neutered as adults. Say they want to communicate why a given thing is wrong, or act on the judgment that it’s wrong: they can’t appeal to God’s word, or cultural consensus, any longer. Instead, they have to justify those particulars, which they are not capable of doing on their own, because justifying particulars is a multigenerational effort by the brightest artistic and philosophical minds of a society. Nobody can be expected to do that by themselves, and even if they did, it would be an incredible effort to communicate any of it, since there’s no cultural point of commonality to rely on. So instead of using intrinsic merit as the justification for their judgments, the adult has to land on a fallback position, which is using formal tests of group identity, i.e. politics. Such-and-so is not right because it is right, but because it is the political line and has been selected as a marker for ingroup loyalty. [] On the bright side, this makes decisions and calculations very easy, because politics makes requirements completely explicit. On the downside, this means that every part of the adult’s actions are now held to whatever is politically expedient at the moment. On the massive downside, this is identical to either adolescent political maneuvering or childish obedience, depending on whether you’re on the giving or taking end. I won’t belabor the point, but this is yet another account of what leads to everything wrong with our society.[5]

The traditional responsibility of an adult is handling liminal space, the border between light and dark, between the defined and the undefined, between what can be said and what can’t be. When something happens that’s on the edge, it’s the responsibility of the adult to navigate their people, their family, safely through treacherous waters and past the obstacles. The definitive adult experience is the dilemma, often moral but not always, which is the uncharted question. To handle it, they use the best of their cultural lessons available and choose what action they must. These choices are then kept, for the most part, private. This is to protect the involved parties from judgment. If the dilemma is too serious, or is made public, then it gets elevated to an elder, who has to bring out a new judgment for it which can be used from then on (consider Pope Francis). The best contemporary example of one of these liminal judgments is: imagine your teenage son got some girl knocked up. How would you handle disciplining the kid, talking with the girl’s parents, not to mention the pregnancy itself? And what if it’s your daughter getting pregnant? How do you handle disciplining her and navigating the gut-churning responsibilities that the act entails, without negating her agency in making the first adult decision of her life? And then you have to figure out what to say when the boy’s folks come knocking. You aren’t bound to answer in particulars, but some people were, and they had to stand by their call. That’s what adults are here to do.[6]

Problems come when there isn’t liminal space to work in, that is, when the adult is unable to work on the edge of tradition. At that point there is either nothing or everything guiding their decisions: the former is a hideous challenge, the latter fit for a machine or child. The adult can no longer act meaningfully, which puts them in the same functional boat as a teenager, and the rest falls apart. Here’s the tricky part: today, our knowledge, our culture, covers both everything and nothing. There’s a political stance for every decision, a scientific fact for every question, but an utter paucity of meaning and values to support anything. This isn’t an ironic contrast, this is part and parcel of the same problem. [Which, of course, means it is an ironic contrast.] The overwhelming light casts darker shadows within. Creating new answers to all material problems destroys the existing answers to the immaterial. The scientific revolution caused both parts of this problem.

Traditional cultures have a particular characteristic about them, which is a distributed and holistic metaphysics. What I mean by this is: the metaphysics covers both scientific fact and immaterial meaning, smoothly bridging the gap between mind and body, while distributing the details of separate fields of reality to individual corners of metaphysical reasoning. The easiest-to-grasp version of this is polytheism, where a different divinity has dominion over each section of reality. Monotheism didn’t put an end to this either, as the old cultural beliefs still held their own particular role (witches, ghosts) and you got a patron saint for everything under Heaven – meaning that Christianity was closer to Louis XIV feudalism than a dictatorship in structure. All paid homage to the known monarch, but for local affairs, you might seek the shelter and patronage of a local lord.

The effect of this structure is flexible and complete systems of thought, a metaphor for every season, an almanac of belief. If an adult needed an answer to a hard question, they would be assured that there would be some corner of culture that would address precisely what they were struggling with, and even if it wasn’t a perfect answer for their situation, it would still help frame the question. This applies to moral questions, but also practical ones. The farmer wants help with crops; there’s a ritual and logic behind it. This is the critical link between the physical and the spiritual: not only does the ritual say what is to be done, it says what that means. It associates meaning, value, import to the action, bringing it out of being just a brute action. Consider the difference between the mechanical actions of sex and the meaning inherent in making love. The actions themselves are somewhat banal and uninteresting, but the meaning makes it far more than just the actions. Sex is meh at best, gross at worst, but sex can be one of the most marvelous things there is.[7]

So the traditional act is, for the most part, to the modern act as making love is to sex. Yes, I know that’s romantic as hell, so here’s the appropriate caveat: not everything was great in the good old days, and the emotional portent of acts was not always positive. In fact, if you were a typical lower-class individual, much of the emotional affect of life would be shitty, the spiritual acknowledgment of “my life sucks.” The idea of “it’s right for the king to rule, I should accept my lot in life” is terrible. The feeling born from that is resentment. The opiate, “they may be ruling but I’ll get my spot in Heaven,” can only help that so much. The past wasn’t a magical land where everyone was happy. And yet the peasants of every land are most often those most firmly attached to the culture of yore. Certainly, we may explain it with politics. Certainly, we may describe it as foolish yokelry, call up contemptuous analogies to dismiss it, insult the antiprogressives. And still we would be fools to ignore the full form of that affect, that acknowledgement of the nature of reality, which starts as “my life sucks” and ends with “but…”

It is in that hesitance, that poignant, pregnant moment, hanging gossamer-delicate between the leaden words of the present and that which escapes the tongue, which straightens bent backs, softens weathered faces, soothes hardened hearts, and casts our cruel and insufficient world into something so beautiful that those who see it cannot help but to weep, inwardly or outwardly, iridescent tears of that dew which drips from our very souls, sweet nectar and proof of our divinity. For not the Olympian nor the towering Jehovasine figure suffered the weary agony of failed flesh; only the Son of Man could bear and transform sin. Take it as you will, but the operation of that tale was not that the divine came to save the mortal, but that the mortal achieved what the divine could not, which is to attain divinity.

This is, needless to say, all meaningless by itself, which is why I choose meaning instead. The alternative to meaning, though, is –

[1]This, incidentally, is why doxxing is the cardinal sin of the internet: it puts someone in full view, full shame, of society. Revealing someone’s identity, or even looking into it in any capacity, is as vile and wrong as digging through their trash or peeking through their bedroom window. Moral imperatives aren’t fashionable right now, true, but if you are wise you will take this as code.

[2]No, this isn’t John Galt sleight of hand, despite the incessant attacks on society the message is not “fuck other people,” it’s the opposite. Many people are shitty, society is shitty, but abandoning humans is an act of cowardice. Equally, deafening oneself to the words of others is ugly and arrogant, but the point is that slaving yourself to them is craven. Listen, and reserve judgment. Those are not contrary, those are complementary. You can’t be a separate person, listening to another, if all you do is accept.

[3]That’s the archetypal adolescent act: to imagine an impossible ideal, half-ass an attempt towards it mostly based around image and identity, and respond to their failure by claiming success was never possible. Of course it wasn’t, the first step to succeeding is to make sure you’re trying to do something that’s within the realm of possibility and set attainable short-term goals, which is why a great strategy for doing something painful is the same as the way you end up spending all day on something inane: you say “just until this next mark, this next goal, then I’ll stop,” and keep kicking the can down the road until you know you have to stop. The child’s deferral of action doesn’t even get as far as trying. It stops at “oh, I don’t know if I can do this, I won’t be any good, I’ll let someone who’s better handle it.” Smart plan for the kindergartener with a buzzsaw, but gets significantly less endearing past that point. (One role of the parent is to introduce the child to each new thing they can do as it becomes possible to do it. The child should become capable of doing anything, or at least authorized to give it a shot, by the time they’re 10-12, because after that comes adolescence, when the kid won’t listen to anything.)

[4]So we have this model: kids play, teens rebel, adults work within, and elders take responsibility. The right question here is “whence change?” Certainly not from the kids; they’re kids. Definitely not the teens; they’re powerless. Relying on the elders seems silly, since they’re the most entrenched and out of touch. So where? Clearly, the adults.

In a properly functioning system (hilariously rare, basically only expected on very small scales), the mechanism is: during the adolescent rebellion, the elders (grandparents) step in to take heightened responsibility for the child. They, as representatives of the overall culture, listen to and acknowledge the child’s complaints as only they can (since, as elders, they are divorced from the material power that the adolescent is also rebelling against). They then maintain the judgments they deem to be valid, and help guide the adolescent in relieving their frustration and channeling their desires into adulthood as a compatible advance within the existing social framework. The teen then starts putting this into practice, and through that, become adults – but adults with slightly different cultural frameworks, sets of judgments, from their own parents. They conduct their worldly affairs in different manners, and change has been achieved.

This is why we understand the paragons of elderly virtue to be kind, understanding, and overwhelmingly moral (see: Mr. Rogers, as a pop culture example), because that’s the only way for this system to operate. Any child, any teen, needs to be able to implicitly trust their elders, and if that trust cannot be established or gets betrayed, this process will massively break down. At that point, the adolescent will (under natural impulses) start reaching out for adoptive elders as replacements for their own, or if none can be found, seek one of the many alternatives to growing up.

[5]This is in sharp contrast to traditional group identity, which is based entirely around shared cultural understanding and certain ur-qualifications (the unpleasant truth is that race is often part of it). If you follow all the instructions and check all the boxes for a political group, then you simply become one, no matter anything else about you, and people who want to exclude you are going to fight an uphill battle (see contemporary difficulties in gatekeeping). This is impossible for membership in more traditional groups, which are impossible to checkbox your way into.

Consider how easy it is to become a Democrat or Republican in contrast to becoming American. Sure, we pay lip service to the idea that anyone can just join, but practically speaking we all know the difference between first-gen, second-gen, and third-gen, and like it or not, as a recent immigrant you’re stuck in one of those buckets purely on the basis of your cultural background. That’s not to say that everyone will reject you, but just that you will never be a (fourth-gen and onward) American. On the flip side, there are plenty of cultural groups explicitly set up to include whichever people go through an accepted and carefully designed ritual of entry regardless of any other details about them. Once you’ve done the steps, said the words, you’re part. The way this works is: the ritual is the shared cultural background, and by establishing it, you make sure everyone’s on the same page. Examples include: moderately evangelical religions (like Judaism), traditional scholarly societies, and fraternities/sororities. No, not all of them are inherently great, sorry about that, hazing was here before we were born and isn’t going away anytime soon.

Notes for people interested in creating these: the two components universal to all cultural rituals are art and strain. The former is the aspect of a book club, where everyone gets on the same cultural page (so to speak), while the latter is the aspect of a boot camp, where everyone puts in the effort and toil to share in the experience of commitment. I’m guessing that the readership here doesn’t need too much reminder that a ritual of strain without art is literally hazing, a brutish requirement for loyalty displays without purpose behind it, and that it’s less obvious at first blush what’s wrong with art on its own. If you’ve ever been to a book club, though, you’ll be well aware that most people don’t read the damn book. The problem with art without strain is that you get a lot of fucking posers, which dilutes the brand and undercuts the ability to verify that shared experience. Give that up, and you just have another political group where everyone pays lip service to whatever’s in vogue and feels more isolated than ever. Don’t let this be you. Equally, if you’re someone who complains that such-and-so qualification for group membership is unfair, it doesn’t show real mastery, you’re just as good without needing any of it, please recognize that you’re being basic as fuck and won’t grow up until you stop.

This is the fundamental complaint behind all gatekeeping efforts, but amusingly enough, the internet age makes these attempts to verify the strain into… more checkboxing. Take someone, say a diehard Harry Potter fan, who claims that “you’re not a real fan unless you’ve read the books five times.” The idea here is that the fan wants access to a social group where everyone has similar experiences in terms of appreciation of and commitment to the books, and so has laid down the gauntlet. But while in person they’d easily be able to tell who has the appreciation and commitment even without having to check for read counts, on the internet a person who wants in on the fanbase for whatever reason (usually adolescent, don’t hate, it’s natural) can speedread the books five times to check that box or else, ya know, just lie. (On the internet?!) Offline, someone who doesn’t live up in person just slowly stops getting invited to events, or in a more traditional group, requires explicit approval by in-group members to get inducted in the first place, but nowadays even offline public groups are turning away from the traditional models because they have no good response to claims of elitism. The snotty playground complaint of “they aren’t letting me play with them!” has gained traction in the adult world. I’m not saying that all exclusivity is good, and God knows kids can be the most vicious little beasts imaginable, but freedom of association is valuable. Don’t give it up just ‘cuz.

[6]Again, the examples I give and language I use both are masculine, but this doesn’t mean that adult codes for masculine, just that I’m more familiar with the traditionally male spheres of responsibility. It goes without saying: traditional gender roles are out, they aren’t coming back, they shouldn’t come back, but all the same things need to be done. This means that men and women need to both be prepared to learn patchwork gendered responsibilities, because they need to be able to handle some part of everything. I would recommend paying special attention to the feminine roles, to ensure they get taken up, because those are incredibly un-chic right now. No, I’m not talking being a pretty princess or whatever, I’m talking about being a mother, the person always waiting at home for you in Pokémon, always there and waiting and infinitely available no matter what. That still needs to happen, but it cannot just be foisted on one partner, because it is so horribly undervalued in society, because nobody will regard that person well. I can hope the future will bring change, but if you’re reading this, this is for you: you need to do it yourself, or it won’t get done at all. Or it’ll get done by nannies.

[7]As an aside: making love is just one psychic manifestation of sex, based on the closeness and good relationship between the partners. Two other notable ones are fucking, which emphasizes the raw physicality of the act, and violation, which focuses on the bad relationship between the partners. This includes rape, of course, and also just regretting/not particularly wanting to do it. I won’t even get into kink.

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