Friday, September 4, 2009

Endormement—Just an Idea

Those familiar with theories of cyclic history will have heard of Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968), a Russian-born but U.S.-settled sociologist. He wrote Social and Cultural Dynamics, a four-volume work, in which his theories are laid out. I’ve mentioned him in one of the early posts here once before. Among such systematizers Sorokin differs from others because he associates cycles in history—at least here and there, when he is not driven by moral outrage—with what looks like a natural tendency for people to go to extremes, to recoil from them and change their ways, and then, in turn, to go too far in the other direction. He identifies three periods which he calls ideational, idealistic, and sensate. In the first cultures turn inward and emphasize the spiritual, in the last they turn outward and emphasize the material, and the middle term, always transitional, is a synthesis of the two. Idealistic periods mark the change from one dominant orientation to the other. Within our own history, the Medieval period (Christendom) is associated with the ideational, the Renaissance is the middle term; it marks the transition to Modernity which, in Sorokin’s view is a sensate, materialistic orientation.

I’ve pondered this scheme throughout my adult years and find some merit in it. It’s great for labeling things in a facile sort of way, but if you take the ideas seriously, more is revealed. For instance: Throughout most of the Renaissance and well into the so-called Enlightenment, indeed still laxly holding the loyalty of the masses today, the religious viewpoint dominant in the Medieval times was and remains visible and active. The categories Sorokin imposes are elite views, not those of the ordinary people. Ordinary people are influenced, to be sure, conform to the elite opinion more or less, but they’ll continue to cross their fingers, to believe in God (and not just in the trenches) and—despite the orthodoxy entrenched at the moment—will on the one hand believe in a hierarchical reality in the gut in materialistic eras and manage, on the other, somehow to satisfy the flesh even in the most severely ascetic and spiritual periods too.

Thus I interpret Sorokin as saying that elites go too far in one direction and then have to change course. It is elites that exhaust the potentials present in certain ways of experiencing reality and then, drained of inspiration, turn about and behold value in the long neglected. At the very peak of humanity, however, but tiny in headcount, are individuals who manage to develop a true balance. The natural and well developed state is synthesis.

This is the sort of stuff I ponder on my walks—while avidly keeping a look-out for rabbits. It is amazing how many I manage to see. They hide very well. Seeing them, counting them, pleases me much. My top count is fifteen rabbits on a walk. Rabbit counting keeps my body and my senses busy while my thoughts range all over eternity.

Anyway, on one of these walks, it occurred to me a year or so ago that we may very well be going through another age of transition—and never mind the outer indicators which would entirely contradict this. The thought came to me in thinking of the Romantic movement—and figures like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Blake, Shelley. Byron belongs here too, but I’ve never read him. And so do Goethe and Schiller who—thanks to my years in Germany—are part of my heritage. The thought came to me. Lordy. These guys are like angels bearing trumpets, and just as the eighteenth began to yield to the nineteenth century, they all blew their trumpets to announce the coming of a new Age of Faith.

And then, as I walked along—no rabbits anywhere to distract me—I got to thinking. If what I sense is true, and we’re going through another Renaissance… Stop right there. The name isn’t right. It might be another idealistic period—in the course of which the spiritual and the material will be fused into another splendid vision—but calling it a rebirth isn’t appropriate. If what is coming is another religious age, down the ways, birth—a plunge into the harsh realities of matter, the slap on the new-born bottom, the screams of baby outrage, the messy removals of umbilical cords, no, none of this will do. Instead, approaching the more subtle orders of the spiritual, dreaming is more appropriate. So I got to thinking and devised a new name for our era. Obviously it must also be in French. And to satisfy the beady-eyed materialists, it should have a slightly negative tonality that they can exploit while the rest of us will know better. So herewith I offer the word Endormement. The times are getting ever darker—and therefore it may be time to sleep. And perchance to dream.

1 comment:

  1. Endormament, I like that term! It is hard to use the word enlightement or renaissance for that seems to be happening here.

    By the way, I hope you are happy to still have your old edition of Social and Cultural Dynamics since I did carry them around Europe in a backpack. It became clear to me early in my travels that I wouldn't really read them on that trip. Nonetheless, I had barrowed those volumes (all 4)from you and so I couldn't jettison them along with the high heels and hairdrier. Yes, those books have seen much and travelled far.

    Happy dreams.