Walker Percy Wednesday 148


One thing of value is his setting aside the “sensuous-erotic” as a category to be examined in its own right, a category which not only is not to be dismissed as simply sinful but which can in fact produce works of the highest genius, in Kierkegaard’s term, “the musical-erotic genius” of Don Giovanni. Thus, we are dispensed from the necessity of uttering the usual denunciations of the present age, familiar from both Christian and non-Christian sources, and adducing the usual statistics about the rise in teenage pregnancies, pornography, sex in the media, child molestation, rape, and so on. And dispensed as well from the usual rhetoric of the “sexual revolution”—the Don would have made an ideal subject of a Playboy interview or Playgirl centerfold (Hugh Hefner in fact might be described as a latter-day, rather washed-out Don; if he were set to music, it would not be by Mozart but by Mantovani)—even to the point of blaming all the woes of the Western world on the repression of sexuality by Christianity. Such denunciations and defenses are remarkable chiefly for their sterility. There is something more than a little dreary about the present standoff between the “sexual revolution” and the Christian counterrevolutionaries. It usually comes down to the Reverend Jerry Falwell confronting Bob Guccione, editor of Penthouse, on a talk show. Both men do their usual numbers, the viewer takes sides, and that is that.
But Kierkegaard gives us leave to see both, both Jerry Falwell and Bob Guccione, from a different perspective, as if the TV camera had been dollied backstage, from which vantage point we can see both Guccione and Falwell plus the talk-show host plus the studio audience and form some notion of what is going on with all of them.
Even more valuable is Kierkegaard’s characterization of “the spirit of the sensuous-erotic” and his use of the quaint word “demoniac.”
“Demoniac” implies possession of the soul by an unbenign spirit. Such a notion comports well with our far more modest semiotic description of the self, not necessarily as a soul or spirit, but in minimal terms as that semiotic entity which is unique in its ability to understand the world but not itself. The science of the scientist can understand everything in the Cosmos but the self of the scientist. It, the self, is therefore a “spiritual” entity, if you like, but an entity anyhow subject to its own modes of existence, triumphs, and disasters and, in this age, its own peculiar predicaments. Not the least benefit of semiotics and Kierkegaard is that we are delivered from the debilitating strictures of modern psychology, which has not the means of saying anything at all about the self, let alone spirit.
Both Kierkegaard and modern semiotics give us leave to speak of the self as being informed—“possessed,” if you like, at certain historical stages of belief and unbelief. It becomes possible, whether one believes in God or not, soul or not, to agree that in an age in which the self is not informed by cosmological myths, by totemism, by belief in God—whether the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam—it must necessarily and by reason of its own semiotic nature be informed by something else.
Kierkegaard wrote of the relationship between Christianity and “the spirit of the erotic.” I wonder what he would have made of the influence of the technological revolution on the spirit of the erotic and whether it is a coincidence that this country is not only the most Christian and most eroticized of all societies but also the most technologically transformed and the most violent. Is there a relationship between the “spirit of the erotic,” technology, and violence?
At any rate, one may state the fact in Kierkegaardian terms without pretending to solve the riddle of the relationship:
The fact is that, by virtue of its peculiar relationship to the world, to others, and to its own organism, the autonomous self in a modern technological society is possessed. It is possessed by the spirit of the erotic and the secret love of violence.
The peculiar predicament of the present-day self surely came to pass as a consequence of the disappointment of the high expectations of the self as it entered the age of science and technology. Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of the scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself in the end disappointed by the failure of science and technique in those very sectors of life which had been its main source of ordinary satisfaction in past ages.
As John Cheever said, the main emotion of the adult Northeastern American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.
Work is disappointing. In spite of all the talk about making work more creative and self-fulfilling, most people hate their jobs, and with good reason. Most work in modern technological societies is intolerably dull and repetitive.
Marriage and family life are disappointing. Even among defenders of traditional family values, e.g., Christians and Jews, a certain dreariness must be inferred, if only from the average time of TV viewing. Dreary as TV is, it is evidently not as dreary as Mom talking to Dad or the kids talking to either.
School is disappointing. If science is exciting and art is exhilarating, the schools and universities have achieved the not inconsiderable feat of rendering both dull. As every scientist and poet knows, one discovers both vocations in spite of, not because of, school. It takes years to recover from the stupor of being taught Shakespeare in English Lit and Wheatstone’s bridge in Physics.
Politics is disappointing. Most young people turn their backs on politics, not because of the lack of excitement of politics as it is practiced, but because of the shallowness, venality, and image-making as these are perceived through the media—one of technology’s greatest achievements.
The churches are disappointing, even for most believers. If Christ brings us new life, it is all the more remarkable that the church, the bearer of this good news, should be among the most dispirited institutions of the age. The alternatives to the institutional churches are even more grossly disappointing, from TV evangelists with their blown-dry hairdos to California cults led by prosperous gurus ignored in India but embraced in La Jolla.
Social life is disappointing. The very franticness of attempts to reestablish community and festival, by partying, by group, by club, by touristy Mardi Gras, is the best evidence of the loss of true community and festival and of the loneliness of self, stranded as it is as an unspeakable consciousness in a world from which it perceives itself as somehow estranged, stranded even within its own body, with which it sees no clear connection.
But there remains the one unquestioned benefit of science: the longer and healthier life made possible by modern medicine, the shorter work-hours made possible by technology, hence what is perceived as the one certain reward of the dreary life of home and the marketplace: recreation.
Recreation and good physical health appear to be the only unambivalent benefits of the technological revolution.