Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

A World Shorn of Meaning

Originally posted on October 5, 2011

I was reminded of my enjoyment of the picture books by Abner Dean when I was a teenager. These involved a mixture of surrealism, a bit of cartooning, and the presentation of world shorn of meaning. He was an illustrator whose books were more known in the late 1940s and 1950s.  I was impressed by these books and collected some of them, though I couldn’t articulate exactly why they appealed to me. Part of this was my interest in cartooning. But only recently have I realized some other implications of his work.

I think Abner Dean was a commentator on the de-myth-ification of our Western Civilization. (I don’t presume to imagine that he thought of his work in these terms.) Here’s my explanation, from a broader perspective. In the (rightful) flight of Western Culture from the tyranny of kings, aristocrats, doctrinaire religion, and autocratic systems in general, and the turn towards scientifically-based knowledge, democracy, and liberalism, there has resulted an intellectual vacuum of emotionally satisfying “meaning.”. I confess some sympathy with this rejection of even subtle oppression, but then I also recognize certain elements in traditionalism that have value—especially the power of tradition or that kind of thing to supply myth—a system of connection and meaning: This is how you are connected to the world, and this is what it means.

I have pursued both channels, moving away from illusions that no longer serve us, yet also intrigued by esoteric systems that hint at “the more-ness” of the cosmos that can offer meanings. I’ve been handicapped in this journey by feelings of deep meaning in my own life, which, though I’m grateful for it, has also functioned as a layer of insulation that has blinded me to the pervasiveness and depth of alienation in the general population. On the other hand, this naive insulation in some ways has allowed me time to contemplate the problem more objectively. (There’s a mild paradox, here, because I’m trying to be objective about what is deeply subjective—i.e., the senses of connection, meaning, identity, aesthetic value, etc.) Yet this is for me part of the challenge, to appreciate and understand such dynamics to some degree, allowing for un-ending variations that transcend our provisional models.

My own sense of meaning handicap is that I have been blessed with several deep roots of identity and meaning—the idealistic streams of medicine and the modern theme of progress; the extravagant models of esoteric psychology and philosophy (e.g., the great chain of being); the rootedness in Jewishness as an ethnicity even if I couldn’t develop a sense of connection with its religious foundations; a kind of unaffiliated idealism that fit with part of the intellectual climate of the mid-20th century. I didn’t really feel much of the sense of alienation that emerged during my teen and college years through the beat culture of North Beach in San Francisco, but I liked many of its ideas.

I too felt a bit of tension and bewilderment at the themes of phony-ness and hypocrisy that pervaded so many social institutions and some cultural, economic, political, religious, and other domains. This has only grown with time—I’m increasingly impressed with the streams of non-rationality, irrationality, rationalization, the underlying power of the true religion of consuerism (true only in the sense that the almighty dollar is the functional god even as people pay lip service to the traditional objects of devotion appropriate to their culture), and so forth. Yes, phoniness pervades.

Part of my interest is vocational. I was a psychiatrist who always considered the wider culture and the paradoxes of that culture as factors in the overall stress and causation or reinforcement of a great many patterns of neurosis. Freud did this too, but he superimposed his own theory which inhibited others from noting that there were many other sources of stress that Freud never considered or perhaps he himself had not penetrated his own capacity for denial—such as a more feminist view of depth psychology.

Nor do I claim that we are anywhere near a final analysis: New facets of subtle mixed messages continue to emerge in my consciousness, at least, and I am aware that many of them remain out of the field of awareness of a goodly percentage of psychologists and psychiatrists (e.g.
– sociometry and the dynamics of rapport, and the feelings associated with this quite touchy dimension of social psychology—guilt or shame over whom we prefer, whom we don’t prefer, and feelings of rejection at not being preferred by those whom we want to prefer us… etc.
– play, the dynamics of loosening the literal nature, or the social consequences, or the provisional exploratory quality of certain individual and collective actions, which then blurs into humor, satire, and many other forms.
– the need for freedom to create, to feel empowered as a creator, unafraid of making mistakes, the capacity for improvisation, etc.
– the source of feelings of meaning and what degree of structure is needed, when does it become doctrinaire, etc. Also I think this has to do with distilling out what is most valid and important in religion.
– related to the above, the function of myth, story, poetry, drama, etc. in culture and in mind
– and so forth.

Most of the above I know have been thought about, at least peripherally, but at least a few other thinkers or researchers in the culture if not the field. But the point here is that getting the word out still has a long way to go. Also, various formulations probably can do with being more fully elaborated and  refined.

A World Shorn of Meaning

So, back to Abner Dean: might he have been commenting on the emergence of a world shorn of meaning? For a while there so much of culture had been diverted by the near-universal theme of the fight between good and evil, the world war. And before that, recovering from another world war. During this time, also, a global depression, influenza epidemic, flush prosperity boom and bust, and emergence into a kind of a-moral freedom of the flapper era. But the underlying myth of good versus evil, around since the time of Zoroaster in Persia 2500 years ago, continues to be a gripping diversion. Evil of course is out there, the others, and the battle must be primarily in terms of physical combat and collective struggle—war.

This has continued in popular mythology through the present, but is becoming more fantastic. Good versus evil, physical struggle peppered by cleverness. It all operates as a distraction from a more fundamental struggle between our own tendencies to stupidity and other, weaker, tendencies to awaken to recognize how we had been asleep.

This struggle is more subtle, as I note, because even as we awaken a bit, we are seduced yet again into another illusory state and lapse back into a kind of half-dream of complacency. This need to be recognized as the key to contemporary struggle! The “enemy” is our own folly. It is not just our “animal” nature—that itself has a certain prideful passion to it—but it is equally forces of childish rejection of responsibility, victimization, sheer laziness and inertia, the ease of distraction into triviality. It’s not our slathering inner tiger, but rather our distractible inner puppy—something far less fearsome but equally able to sabotage our ideals.

In other words, the challenge is to re-construct a personal and collective myth, or at least the themes of myth, that we may then dare to assemble to fit what works for us as individuals. This challenge to create our own combination is daunting; It seems as if we’d rather have a package given to us. On the other hand, we do in fact—over the long run—individuated, insist, perhaps unconsciously, on finding our own mixture of interests, temperament, knowledge base, abilities,  preferences, and the kinds of inner symbols which resonate with us. If we fall out of alignment with our “true self,” this generates perhaps only a mild dissonance that over the years tends to get worked out. In-between, illness, relationships, and other seemingly external events are acted out  that lead people to realizing their preferences. At this point in human evolution, individuation is still very much a hit-and-miss process.  Well, that’s all for today.

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