Friday, August 06, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 6

I remember when I was a schoolboy around sixteen or seventeen years of age a retired teacher, who was our librarian, Dr James J. Carey saying that history really was the most important subject because quite simply every subject had a history and that an understanding of history gave one a good start no matter what subject one chose to study at college.  I remember being quite impressed by this learned gentleman as he was a Latin and English literature scholar and edited many important school books on those topics.  He was also the first person I had ever come across that had a doctorate.  James was wise in his own way and very learned in his chosen subjects, though once I heard him say, upon flicking through a book on mathematics, "Look how much I do not know."  At least this won me over as one of his fans -  James J. never pretended to know what he didn't.

Today, one of the things that annoys me is how poor a grasp of history or even of the developments within any area in human culture that our media seems to have.  When one hears them decrying all those seemingly modern crimes like rape, and especially paedophilia as if somehow these ghastly crimes have suddenly been born out of nowhere or indeed that the Roman Catholic Church has some sort of manopoly in attracting clerics with that psychiatric deviation.  Not being an essentialist or one who believes in ultimate truths carved into great stones set somewhere beyond this universe, I often despair when I hear people say things like, "Murder was always wrong," "Abortion is and was also always wrong," and statements like "Paedophilia was always a crime and everyone knows that."  I despair at their lack of a sense of history in the very overarching sense of evolution or if you like simple development of any kind. 

Very simply, we would not have had the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights but for the fact that six million Jews and some six million others of various ethnic, social and religious backgrounds were systematically murdered by the Nazi death machine.  The Rights of Man only became news when The American Declaration of Independence and later the US constitution spoke about mankind's inalienable rights - in other words only in the last three hundred years or so.  (One of course could also mention the role of The French Revolution in the development of our understanding of human rights.) And also don't forget that slavery was acceptable socially for many years, and that it was also only outlawed in the last several hundred years.  In all of this there was never mention of the rights of women or indeed the rights of children.  These rights took many more decades to develop.

And people say stupid things like "murder and paedophilia were always wrong."  When we lived in the caves we practised murder, and not just in self-defense, on a weekly, if not daily basis in attempting to ward off our enemies - other cavemen.  Cavemen had very little understanding of right and wrong - all as they wanted to do was survive.  Even when humans began to live together, accepted moral codes had to be built up and established over hundreds of years to make community living viable.  One man could not be allowed to take the property of another or have conjugal rights with as many other women as he liked.  No indeed, laws had to be written to govern all the possible behaviours of mankind.  This was an on-going process as mankind only encountered each behaviour as it occurred and then it was consequently noted.  So the above seemingly obvious statements are not what they make themselves out to be at all. 

What I am arguing here is that moraliy and ethics have evolved over generations and have been codified in laws, and written and argued over as our knowledge of such human behaviour developed.  Likewise, our knowledge of paedophilia has grown in recent centuries.  Undoubtedly, it has been there all the time, being a certain kind of sexual relationship, as warped as it appears to us now, because it satisfied certain animal needs within some of the human herd.  Don't forget that we belong firmly to the animal kingdom.  That's why studies on homosexuality, heterosexuality and indeed paedophilia in animals is also important for us because they help us understand the wide varities of behaviours we humans are capable of.  There never were ultimate truths carved on heavenly stones.  Truths evolved as we evolved and learned more about ourselves and about the world around us.

Now, this brings me in a round-about way back to Dr Anthony Storr's wonderful little book Solitude.  His sixth chapter on the Significance of the Individual is nothing short of enlightening.  In fact, it is only in the past four to five hundred years that the concept of the self and of the individual as different from others within the human community emerged.  Now, you will understand the passionate nature of the prologomenon I wrote above to this post.  How many of us really knew that - that the very sense of being a unique individual or self is only that recent?  Now that really makes liars, albeit unconscious ones, of those silly journalists and other silly know-alls who make sweeping statements like "X, Y or Z has always been wrong. Any fool knows that."  Maybe so, but that poor fool is very much deluded, but being a fool we can forgive him far more quickly than you so-called professional and knowlegeable others who make unproven general statements which mislead some, if not most, of the reading public.

San Andrea Superiore again
The idea that individual self-development is an important pursuit is a comparatively recent one in human history; and the idea that the arts are vehicles of self-expression or can serve the purpose of self-development is still more recent.  Storr shares an interesting story from a Nigerian psychiatrist friend that when he first set up his practice in a rural district, the family invariably accompanied the sufferer and insisted on being present at the patient's interview.  They simply did not have the consciousness or knowledge that the patient might exist as an individual apart from his family.  Storr quotes the learned works of several anthropologists and sociologists who give evidential support to this statement.  Primitive socities just do not have the very concept of individuality or "self."  Let us read some of Storr's words here and assimilate them because they are inspiring and insightful:

The growth of individualism, and hence of the modern conception of the artist, was hastened by the Reformation.  Although Luther was an ascetic who attacked wealth and luxury, he was also an individualist who preached the supremacy of the individual conscience.  Until the sixteen century the ultimate standard of human institutions and activities was not only religious, but was promulgated by a universal Western Church.  (Op. cit., p. 79)
This Reformation made possible the growth of Calvinism, and the establishment of the good old Protestant work ethic.  Hence, it was not long before poverty was regarded as a punishment for idleness and fecklessness, and the accumulation of wealth came to be seen as a reward for the virtues of industry and thrift.

Interestingly, Storr gives us some useful dates in the development of the notions of "self" and individual."  These dates are in themselves astoundingly recent.  For instance, according to the OED, it was not till 1674 that the word "self" took on its modern meaning of  "a permanent subject of successive and varying states of consciousness." (Quoted ibid., p. 79)  The compound "self-knowledge" only came in 1613 while the compound "self-conscious" came as late as 1687.  (See ibid., p. 80 for other interesting compounds of self and for their respective dates.)

Interestingly also, we learn that the word "individual" originally denoted "indivisible," and could be used when dwescribing the Holy Trinity, a married couple, and essentially meant those or that which should not be divided. 

We also learn that traditionally the artist's skills were valued far more than his individuality.  In the light of what Storr has been informing us, this does not surprise us in the least.  Most earlier painters/artists did not even sign their work because originality and individuality were not important.  What was important was craftsmanship and the tradition in which they followed as artists.  Today we demand that an artist display originality and we count this latter as the highest artistic merit possible.  Storr puts this succinctly indeed: "The commercial value of a work of art depends upon its demonstrable authenticity rather than upon its intrinsic merit." (Ibid., p. 80)

Then, further, a judicious study of the OED also gives us some timely enlightenment on the word "autobiography."  The first occurrence of this word was in 1809 from a work by the Romantic poet and writer Southey.  It is unsurpriusing that autobiography deveoloped out of confessional lietrature within the Church which indeed was veritably the seminary or seed-growing garden of Western learning.  St Augustine's Confessions is the first book of this genre within the Church's history.  However, over the centuries, autobiography has changed from being a narrative of the soul's relation with and journey to God and has now morphed into an exercise more like that of psycho-analysis.

Now, surely this is something that every thinking being  should be appraised of, namely that both our very notions of individuality and of "self" as being different from that of others is only some four hundred years old?  This must surely put much of the rubbish people write in generalities about human nature very much into perspective.  My old schoolteacher-librarian friend was right - a sense of history, a sense of the development of ideas, a sense that things just were not always the same, that even our own moral and ethical principles evolved - they were never set in stone by some other-worldly deity.  They evolved like everything else on this beautiful blue planet.  Perhaps if more people had this historical sense there would be far less hatred and far less wars in the world, and perhaps our prejudices would become obvious to us as the lies they really are; that oftentimes what we profess as truths are nothing other than lies and deadly lies at that which are mere masks for hatred and sheer evil.

No comments: