Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Transformational Dynamics

In the 1930s, 40s, when I stepped or, rather, crawled onto the scene in Europe (but it was then the same pretty much everywhere) appropriate behavior had to be learned and learned the hard way. Code words are upbringing, manners, etiquette. Kinderstube in German, which simply means “children’s room” signaled where it all began. It was already there at the dinner table where rules guided the use of cutlery and “children are seen, not heard.” We had to learn the habits of society; it didn’t take place spontaneously. But these were habits. The applicable code words here are customs, traditions. Worth noting is that habits can be formed without much inward understanding of the whys and wherefores that lie behind them. My mother, fortunately, made sure that we understood more than simply behavior; she dug up the roots of it; we knew why it mattered. She knew full well that using one hand for the fork, another for the knife, was arbitrary—and that manners at table had a transcending meaning of which these arbitrary signs were simply symbolic tokens. We knew that, even growing up. This somewhat subtle distinction has strong bearing on what follows.

In the conservative lexicon (thinking of Burke now), tradition is understood as the slowly formed deposit of a collective value. At the broad social level, thus at the level of habit and behavior, customs and morals are the same—as the etymology of the word (mores, customs) indicates. The fact that traditions preserve bad habits as well as good is the source of the tension between traditions and the urge to break them. I view the subordination of women as one of these bad habits.

Long ago and far away it genuinely pleased me to encounter the word enantiodromia, a coinage by Carl Jung, derived from Heraclitus, meaning “counter-running” and used by Jung to indicate the tendency in nature, certainly in society, of things to morph into their opposites: growth becomes decline, decline eventually transforms into growth. Why is it that foreign words derived from people long, long dead have a curious authority? Why doesn’t opposite-tending have the same clout as enantiodromia? Is it a deeply rooted respect for…tradition? Probably. But the key to the Greek as well as the mundane English version of it is that this tendency is natural, thus that it belongs to a certain level of reality, the habitual, the behavioristic. It does not pertain to the higher level that my Mother never tired of linking to its mundane expression.

Easing the strictures of social behavior has been a powerful tendency throughout the years of my life—and always framed in positive ways, formally as “Question authority” and in thousands of informal ways relating to dress, language, the content of books and dramas, sexual norms, etc. Just how far this opposite-tending force has pushed its way to the front of the line—since my childhood—came unpleasantly to view last night. I was upstairs reading, late, when Brigitte called me. Quickly. You’ve got to see this. And we watched the last ten minutes of a reality show called Jersey Shore. Stuck in the past as we are, very abstemious re popular culture, neither of us had seen or heard of this phenomenon until last night. Enough said. We’ve come a long ways, baby…

But enantiodromia is natural, not human, as it were. Persistent and genuine pursuit of excellence and virtue does not naturally lead to moral collapse. Nor does persistent and genuine practice of vice naturally lead to virtue. Hence mindless liberation leads to license, license to decadence, and decadence, ultimately, to disorder—and disorder, as history shows, can last and last and last for many, many centuries. The turn-around actually requires a ray of transcendental light to fall upon the stricken population from on high. It isn’t natural or automatic. It is, as the philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev used to say, a kind of vertical descent of grace transecting the horizontal dimension of nature.

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