Simon Leys. Photo: Ray Strange

In his essay, The Empire of the Ugly, the great Belgian Sinologist and literary essayist Simon Leys recounts the story of how, writing one day in a café, a small incident gave him an insight into the real nature of philistinism.

A radio was playing in the background, a mixture of banal and miscellaneous chatter and equally banal popular music. No one in the café paid any attention to this stream of tepid drivel until suddenly, unexpectedly and inexplicably, the first bars of Mozart’s clarinet quintet were played. “Mozart,” Leys says, “took possession of our little space with a serene authority, transforming the café into an antechamber of Paradise.”

Their view that mankind was not moving inexorably towards a condition of complete contentment and satisfaction thanks to technical advance was triumphantly vindicated, if triumph it can be called, in the years following.

The other people in the café, who until then were chatting, playing cards, or reading the newspaper, were not deaf to the radio after all. The music silenced them, they looked at each other, disconcerted. “Their disarray lasted only a few seconds: to the relief of all, one of them stood up, changed the radio station and re-established the flow of noise that was more familiar and comforting, which everyone could then properly ignore.”

Here is the conclusion that Leys draws:

At that moment, I was struck by an obvious fact that has never left me since: that the real philistines are not those people incapable of recognizing beauty—they recognize it only too well, with a flair as infallible as that of the subtlest aesthete, but only to pounce on it and smother it before it can take root in their universal empire of ugliness.

Thus philistinism is a positive, and not merely a negative, force: something that Leys was well-placed to recognize, having been almost alone among western Sinologists in pointing out the militant and vicious philistinism of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

As it happens, I once had an experience not dissimilar from his in the café. I was driving to the prison to attend to a prisoner. It was a hot day, and my car window was open. I was playing Chopin, not very loudly, on my car radio. It was an area in which the rap music from passing cars is often apprehended first by pedestrians as a vibration coming up from the ground into their legs. I stopped at some traffic lights, and a man passing approached me and, his face contorted with rage and hatred, shouted at me, “What have you got that shit on for?”

Not very long before that incident, I had visited Liberia in the course of its prolonged and brutal civil war. I found that the rebels had not merely destroyed the authority of an admittedly highly imperfect, corrupt, and unscrupulous government; they had gone on to dismantle every vestige of higher civilization they could find, as if refinement itself were nothing but a mask for injustice and oppression.

Thus the hospitals, in which no medical activity whatsoever now took place, had not merely been damaged in fire-fights between opposing forces, government and rebel, but every piece of equipment, down to the last little trolley, had been systematically dismantled, so that, at considerable effort, the wheels had been sawn from them to ensure that they could never again be used in any capacity. This was done with astonishing thoroughness even in a ghost hospital where, previously, open-heart surgery had been carried out.

The university was likewise destroyed, and the library sacked by people who obviously had not just an indifference to books, but an active hatred of them, a desire for revenge upon them and all that they represented. In the Centennial Hall in Monrovia, the ceremonial building in which the presidents of Liberia were inaugurated, what was probably the country’s one Steinway grand piano had had its legs sawn off, and the stricken piano lay on the ground, surrounded by a ring of human feces. The most alarming thing, to me at any rate, about the whole scene was that two young British journalists whom I sent to have a look at it, who had both been through higher education, could see no significance in it whatsoever. Why, they asked, was I concerned over the fate of a mere piano, an inanimate object, when at least a quarter of a million people had been killed? That there might be some connection between the two did not enter their minds; this convinced me (once again) that savagery was not confined to what Albert Schweitzer called the edge of the primeval forest.

None of the above would, I think, have surprised either Sigmund Freud or José Ortega y Gasset, whose most famous works on the state of the world, Civilization and Its Discontents and The Revolt of the Masses, were published in the same inauspicious year, 1930. Their view that mankind was not moving inexorably towards a condition of complete contentment and satisfaction thanks to technical advance was triumphantly vindicated, if triumph it can be called, in the years following. Both authors were to suffer exile, but this was an infinitesimal part of the suffering which was soon to come.

The two analyses of the existential condition of mankind are different in emphasis. Although Ortega says penetrating things about the psychology of modern man, he regards that psychology as secondary to sociological change. Freud emphasizes the psychological as primary. For him, the peculiar danger of the age, as he sees it, arises merely from man’s mastery of the means to carry out on a larger scale than ever before his habitual aggressions; in essence, there is nothing new in his psychology, at least since the development of civilization itself. By contrast, Ortega thinks a new and radically different kind of man has arisen, whom he calls mass-man.

Freud offers no solution to the existential difficulties that mankind finds itself in, whereas Ortega—who is principally preoccupied by the European situation of his day—offers a cure that seems at least as bad as the disease itself, namely the construction of a pan-European nationality. But one reads the two books not so much for their detailed argument as for their prophetic and minatory atmosphere. One forgets their arguments almost as soon as one puts the books down, but, strangely enough, something much stronger and more durable remains with one.

Freud’s last paragraph begins as follows:

The fateful question for the human race seems to be whether, and to what extent, the development of civilization will manage to overcome the disturbance of communal life caused by the human drive for aggression and self-destruction.

In other words, man is endowed by nature with instinctual desires that have to be controlled in civilized conditions, if those conditions are to continue to obtain, but the control gives rise to frustration, guilt, and anxiety, that is to say to discontent.

Freud’s model of the mind is deeply hydraulic (he grew up in the great age of steam, after all). He tells us, for example, that “any restriction of … outward-directed aggression would be bound to increase the degree of self-destruction.” On this view, then, the attempt to control outward aggression (and the sexual urge, the other great component of what he calls the id) must result in pathology of one kind or another. As one prisoner who had just killed his girlfriend put it to me, “I had to kill her, doctor, or I don’t know what I would’ve done.” Suffered from a mild degree of hypertension, perhaps, which would have been far worse.

On a hydraulic model, of course, it is hardly surprising if a head of steam, that is to say instinct, builds up occasionally, and eventually bursts the machine that contains it asunder. There will be Chinese Cultural Revolutions and Liberian Civil Wars from time to time (and not only in China or Liberia) that wreak havoc on all the material symbols of civilized restraint. The iconoclast, resentful at the restraint he has hitherto been forced by circumstances to show, will look at those symbols and, like Malvolio, say, “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

Freud, having become a climate of opinion (or perhaps I should say, in recognition of his undoubted talents as a publicist, having made himself such), affected western man’s view of mankind for a long time. Anthropologists went searching for the Oedipus complex in the offshore islands of New Guinea. And as a young man I heard many debates about the effects on behavior of representations of violence on television and in film, those who argued that artistic licence in this respect was an unmitigated good relying almost wholly on Freud’s hydraulic model. According to this model, one murder more watched on television or in the cinema was one less committed in real life, the amount of murderous aggression in the human breast being constant. The more licentious our symbolic representations, therefore, the more truly virtuous, as against merely repressed, we would become.

But Civilization and Its Discontents is a deeply ambiguous book, as is Freud’s position in intellectual and cultural history. He is usually regarded as a cultural revolutionary, and no doubt objectively speaking (in the Stalinist sense of the word), this is correct. His effect as a matter of historical record was certainly revolutionary, and at least some of what he said could be taken as supportive of a cultural revolution. In Civilization and Its Discontents, for example, he says more than once that civilization, precisely because it imposes such restraints on man’s instinctual appetites, leaves him less happy than he was in a state of nature. It would be only too easy to conclude from this that Freud thought that a return to an instinctual free-for-all was desirable, especially as he says that the purpose and aim of most men in life is happiness.

Freud’s model of the mind is deeply hydraulic (he grew up in the great age of steam, after all).

But Freud was a thorough-going Viennese bourgeois himself; one cannot easily imagine him as an uninhibited pot-smoking nudist hippy. He was far too well-tailored for that nonsense. He had a scientistic outlook typical of a certain Germanophone intellectual of the era that by the end of his life was very old-fashioned, and was certainly not the outlook of a man who thought that anything went—quite the reverse in fact. If he believed that civilization made men unhappy, he did not think that they would willingly give up its comforts and safety for a return to nature. They were therefore stuck with civilization; their revolt against it was a little like Québecois threats to secede from Canada, constantly threatened and always troublesome, but not likely in the long run to destroy everything.

Freud believed that suffering caused by frustration was the condition of civilized existence; it could not be avoided. His view of the human mental economy being a hydraulic one, he thought that if suffering did not come to man in one way, it would come in another. He would have agreed with Doctor Johnson’s great philosophical fable, Rasselas, that no way of life is so satisfactory that it lacks many dissatisfactions. I am human, therefore I am dissatisfied. This conclusion does not come from psychoanalysis—whenever Freud uses the locution “As psychoanalytical investigations have shown …” you can be sure that intellectual sleight of hand is about to follow, for such investigations have not “shown” anything, not in the sense that Pasteur showed that fermentation was an organic process. No, Freud came to his conclusion as a highly cultivated, intelligent, elderly bourgeois reflecting upon life, and his conclusion is a conservative one, at least if it is conservative to believe that there are inherent existential limitations to human life and that political schemes that do not recognize them will almost certainly end in violence and avoidable suffering.

Ortega’s view is in some respects similar, though he draws rather different conclusions. He begins his book with a famous declaration that seems to admit of no appeal:

There is a fact that, for good or evil, is the most important one about public life in Europe of the present day. This fact is the advent of the masses to full social power.

The picture Ortega draws of the mass man is not an attractive or flattering one, but Ortega is not a snob who simply excoriates the appalling habits and tastes of those below him in the social scale. For him, mass man is the man who has no transcendent purpose in life, who lives in an eternal present moment which he wants to make pleasurable in a gross and sensual way, who thinks that ever-increasing consumption is the end of life, who goes from distraction to distraction, who is prey to absurd fashions, who never thinks deeply and who, above all, has a venomous dislike of any other way of living but his own, which he instinctively feels as a reproach. He will not recognize his betters; he is perfectly satisfied to be as he is.

Mass man accepts no fundamental limits on his own life. Any limits that he may encounter are purely technical, to be removed by future advance. He believes that life is and ought to be a kind of existential supermarket, that an infinitude of choices is always before him, in which no choice restricts or ought ever to restrict what is possible in the future. Life for mass man is not a biography, but a series of moments, each unconnected with the next, and all deprived of larger meaning or purpose.

Mass man does not have to be poor or stupid. He can be both highly paid and highly intelligent, in a narrow way, and he can also be very highly educated, or at least trained; indeed, as knowledge accumulates, and as it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to master more than the very smallest portion of human knowledge, so connected thought (of the kind of which mass man is incapable) becomes rarer and rarer. Mankind collectively knows more than ever before, says Ortega, but cultivated men grow fewer.

It is difficult to know how to prove or disprove what Ortega says, and he is certainly not the first to observe that a feeling of limitless satisfaction of appetites is not necessarily an aid to happiness. I suspect that one either reacts to him with a profound sense of recognition and relief that someone has penetrated to an essential and unpleasant truth about the modern age, much more important and significant than the superficial changes in the day-to-day political scene, or one dismisses him as a latter-day Don Quixote, for whom high culture plays the part of Dulcinea del Toboso. Needless to say, I react in the former manner.

Here are just a couple of straws in the wind. A close friend of mine has been teaching Cambridge medical students for more than twenty years, and they are all highly intelligent and capable, but only two of those whom he has taught had ever heard of Chekhov. (He tells them to read him, and they are all immediately enthralled, suggesting a terrible failure on the part of our educational system, and, at a deeper level, of our contemporary culture.)

I have noticed that highly educated public figures all either claim or actually do have the same tastes in distractions—such as, for example, soccer, soap operas, and pop music—as the least educated private citizens. Here, published on the very day that I write this, is the opening of an article published in The Guardian newspaper, more or less the house journal of Great Britain’s intelligentsia, about the way in which musical taste varies in different areas of the country:

If you live in London, you may be labouring under the misapprehension that happy hardcore, the fast-tempoed dance music style famed for its euphoric vocals and sentimental lyrics, died a death in the late 1990s. You may believe that the oeuvre of DJ Sharkey and Hixxy et al.—and even the bestselling happy hardcore compilation series, Bonkers—have now faded into obscurity. You may, as a Londoner, have become preoccupied by the charms of dubstep, or Dizzee Rascal’s grime. And so it may surprise you to know that today, happy hardcore, a little older, a little trancier, remains one of the biggest-selling musical genres in Scotland.

I doubt whether the writer of this article had it specifically in mind to demonstrate the truth of some of the underlying premises of Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses, but I also doubt whether, had she done so, she could have done it better. I doubt whether the assumption that low tastes are the only tastes that there are, that nothing is or ought to strive to be sub specie aeternitatis, and that highly educated man is now mass man, could be more succinctly illustrated than in this article.

Ortega’s brilliant and penetrating observations about modern man are unfortunately marred (in my view) by some bad and even sinister suggestions as to a solution. He correctly points to a lack of transcendent meaning or purpose in the lives of mass man to explain his free-floating, lightweight existence, in which any boundaries are felt as evidence of lèse-ego. (“No? What do you mean, no?” said my patients to me when I refused to prescribe for them what they wanted but did not need.) That is why mass man seeks solace in wilder and wilder distractions and consumption that is pointless except in the sense of keeping the economy ever-expanding.

Life for mass man is not a biography, but a series of moments, each unconnected with the next, and all deprived of larger meaning or purpose.

Freud was an atheist, indeed a militant one. For him, belief in God was an infantile regression, an attempt to recapture that deep sense of security that a benevolently omnipotent father supposedly gives a young child. (It hardy mattered that he himself was perfectly prepared to believe in entities every bit as metaphysical as God, provided he had invented them himself.)

Hostile as he was to religion, he nevertheless recognized it as an answer to Man’s ontological anxieties. But just as he hoped through psychoanalysis to transform neurosis into ordinary unhappiness, so he hoped that, in abandoning religion, Man would appreciate his true position in the universe as a mature being who faces reality. What this acute man seems to have missed is that most people cannot bear much reality: with what consequences he was soon to experience for himself, when he wrote “finis Austriae” as the Nazis took over Vienna.

Because Ortega, like Freud, was an atheist, he could not suggest a religious solution to the problem. Surprisingly, perhaps, he does not offer a cultural solution either (Freud suggests that the sublimation of existential dissatisfactions in intellectual and artistic pursuits is a partial, but only partial, solution, at least for the small proportion of men with intellectual and artistic gifts). Instead, Ortega argues that modern European man needs a transcendent political purpose, a feeling that he is engaged on a project that is bigger than his own life. Nationalism is an attempt to give him one, says Ortega, but since European nations are all now far too small for the energies and technical capacities of man in the modern world, there must be a European union. Only thereby can Europe continue to lead and dominate the world as it should. Indeed, Ortega goes so far as to say that life without European leadership would have no meaning for him.

Ortega tells us that national identities are shifting and variable, more constructed than spontaneously arising, and that therefore a European identity could, and indeed must, be forged. He does not go into the rather difficult matter, which is vulgarly practical, of who is to do the forging. He points to the fact that France and Spain were once as much geographical expressions as Italy was, and that nationhood followed unification, not the other way round. Where, now, is the Duchy of Burgundy, but did not people once feel Burgundian? And, says Ortega, the fact is that states, like economies, are either expanding or contracting: still they cannot keep.

Although Ortega is genuinely disdainful of fascism, seeing it as the apogee of mass man, there seems to me something at least proto-fascist, and possibly more than proto-fascist, in his solution to the existential problem that he has so astutely characterized. He makes power the measure of all things, indeed he makes it the meaning of life. When he says that life is struggle, he does not mean merely that there are always obstacles to worthwhile achievement to be overcome, and that a life without such obstacles would be meaningless, but that domination of the world is the meaning of life, and all else, at least for Europe, is decadence. I don’t find this at all pleasant.

Yet, at the same time, and more memorably, Ortega points to the very danger that I see in his solution. He says that today, precisely because so much is possible, the worst is possible: regression, barbarity, decadence. Freedom and possibility necessarily include the freedom and possibility to do evil, which is something of which conservatives are aware but progressives tend to screen out of their minds. Of course, conservatives have, or tend to have, the opposite fault, to be unduly sceptical of the possibilities of doing good. But the existential limitations of human life, as sensitively described by Freud and Ortega, mean that it is far easier to do harm than good, and therefore that the faults of progressives and conservatives, while intellectually mirror images of one another, are not moral mirror images.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 7, on page 16
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