“In the very end, civilizations perish because they listen to their politicians and not to their poets.”
― Jonas Mekas
It’s mostly all horseshit — this profane pageantry of idiocy that we call contemporary society. If you’re being honest with yourself, you know it. You see it all around. Don’t lie.
The nine-to-five, conniving insurance companies, inept institutions, outrage addicts, “sensitivity” training, soap-opera politics, celebrity worship, 24-hour “news” cycle, sound bites, mass consumerism, Twitter wars, identity labels, Big Pharma, crystal healing, widespread obesity, scripted headlines and press releases, morning talk shows, the billboard hot 100, sterile architecture, out of control debt, rampant inflation, constant surveillance, Chris Cuomo, big tech censorship, soulless suburbia, reality shows, Instagram models, participation trophies, Hallmark cards, unceasing extended warranty phone calls, endless advertising and propaganda, “war on drugs,” food additives, “fact-checkers,” internet/spiritual gurus, ill-written self-help books, innumerable diets and fashion fads, the “hustle & grind,” emotional support animals, horoscopes, “empaths” and “influencers,” safe spaces, NPR, etc.
What a shitshow of a spectacle we’ve created for ourselves, huh?
A frivolous spectacle intentionally designed to keep us tense, fearful, divided, mindlessly busy, distracted, and laughably dumb. A spectacle designed, in the words of Vance Packard, “to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.” A spectacle that has dangerously severed us from each other and from the full richness of this brief yet beautiful life.
It was the poet Jim Harrison who once said, “the danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.”
I often wonder if those “God-fearing Pilgrims” who sailed over to this once unspoiled land would’ve reconsidered their hostility against the Natives and against NATURE itself if they knew in advance that we’d end up erecting this glittering cathedral of nonsense?
Hell, we’ve ravaged the countrysides, paved over and through the mountains, meadows, coastlines, and valleys to build mega-malls, quick-marts, high-rise buildings, resorts, banks, fast-food joints, and countless pantheons of half-baked amusement. And we’ve dotted the land with prisons, barbed wire fences, rehab centers, hospitals, and madhouses to deal with civilization’s ill-adapted.
What a horror show.
In the words of historian Morris Berman: “We live in a collective adrenaline rush, a world of endless promotional/commercial bullshit, that masks a deep systemic emptiness, the spiritual equivalent of asthma.”
I once read about this old Indian sage many years ago who once made a visit to that overpriced little fairytale place we call “Disneyland.” Afterward, he simply remarked: “There must be very little joy in a culture which needs to have that much fun.”
If you haven’t quite noticed yet, I seem to harbor this perennial, albeit healthy discontent with the fallen world — this hollow world of lies and strife and superfluous noise, a world where so many of us live in opposition to our essence. In spite of the harsh tone though, I’m not bitter by any means, or nihilistic, I promise, and I’m not hell-bent on changing anything on a systemic level. It’s futile.
I write for the solitary individual out there who might have a sense that something is deeply off — for those who are looking for something a little deeper beyond the charade. I write to express what I see around me with my imperfect eyes. That’s it. I hold no nostalgia for what could have been.
And, apart from a radical change of consciousness and a reconnection to the elemental, there are no sweeping solutions. It’s too late for solutions. As Berman put it, “long ago, Americans bet on the wrong horse, and they are now unable to change horses in midstream.”
Or as the great Tom Robbins so bluntly wrote, “Society, in general, maintains such a vested interest in its cozy habits and solidified belief systems that it had rather die — or kill — than entertain change.”
It is what it is, as they say.
It doesn’t take a keen mind to discern the obvious though — civilization, or what’s left of it, is dangling on a tiny thread over a shadowy abyss.
Many great writers and thinkers of the past saw the writing on the wall early on. Over a hundred years ago Oswald Spengler wrote his famous work, The Decline of the West (1918). His thesis — all civilizations arise, flourish for a short while, and decline in a cyclical pattern. “Through money, democracy becomes its own destroyer, after money has destroyed the intellect.”
It was the great Ralph Waldo Emerson who bleakly predicted that “the end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of too much civilization.” And the Genevan philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who defined civilization as “a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces.”
Novelist Ray Bradbury wrote that our “civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.” And it was that old Kentucky poet, Wendell Berry, who once said, “You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.”
Today, the boundaries between true and false, beauty and grotesque, sacred and profane, real and unreal have all but disintegrated.
We are ruled and managed by the least among us and we are greatly divided over trivial issues.
Over half the population is medicated and chronically ill. Suicide and numerous mental and physiological diseases are rapidly rising. Fertility rates are plummeting right along with testosterone rates in men.
History has been blotted out or misconstrued to appease the aseptic sensibilities of the feeble-minded. The groggy youth these days hardly know who Plato or Moses is let alone the great enlightenment thinkers. The prominent figures of history have been expunged. The lessons of history…abandoned.
Self-harm, suicide, anxiety, and heavy drug use are rampant among teens.
Violence, homicide, addiction, apathy, and crippling fear plague our crumbling cities. The immense gap between the rich and poor is continuously expanding.
The government and almost all our major institutions have become fraudulent, domineering, over-politicized, criminally incompetent organizations that can no longer be fully trusted.
This culture is not your friend.
As Terence Mckenna reminded us, this “culture is a perversion. It fetishizes objects, creates consumer mania, it preaches endless forms of false happiness, endless forms of false understanding in the form of squirrelly religions and silly cults. It invites people to diminish themselves and dehumanize themselves by behaving like machines.”
Years and years of over-civilized living, we are what became of it— stifled creatures, culprits of our own maladies, well-fed and comfortable yet soggy in flesh and soul, digitally connected yet lonelier than ever, perched upon pedestals of presumptuous virtue, nourishing a fierce denial of our own mortality by accessorizing our lives with labels, status, pills, and needless shit while gunning our new, unaffordable sports car down the sad streets of America bought on a 7-year loan.
This is the modern era— a time when we tend to look for a sense of significance via Social Media, shopping centers, mindless entertainment, and prescription drugs rather than in the garden of our own souls. Rootless beings with a sustained devotion to the artificial and inauthentic; good folks devoid of a conscious life beyond the materialistic charade.
“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” wrote the great English poet, William Wordsworth.
Today, mental health problems are the leading cause of disabilities. Is it any wonder the numbers are rising at an alarming rate given the superficial, soul-sucking way of life we’ve created for ourselves in the modern world?
An estimated 40 million Americans are taking psychiatric drugs. According to one study, “35% of young people (aged 12 to 25) said they had taken a prescribed psychoactive drug in the past year.”
We’ve now reached a point when more people are dying from psychiatric drugs than heroin. Fentanyl overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 45. Opioid overdoses are widespread and worsening.
Perusing the internet for this article, I was completely stunned to learn that many pre-schoolers are already taking anti-depressants.
What the fuck is happening?
There’s an immense void in the modern-day soul that we are all desperately longing to fill.
Are we merely the inevitable by-product turned out by a society that is so heavily dominated by mass media, large corporations, and technology?
How much of the neurological and emotional fallout that we see in contemporary society can be contributed to our drug-induced, screen-time lifestyles?
Mounting evidence is showing how constantly staring into screens changes the brain in extremely negative ways. One study revealed that “hours of daily screen time were associated with lower psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks.”
Again, in the words of Berman, “screens are generating the emptiest people in the history of the world, and… there is no way for these folks to get outside themselves and perceive this.”
This Brave New World that we find ourselves in seems to be completely rewiring who we are on a deep, fundamental level. And it’s not good.
One can’t help but be reminded of Huxley’s disturbing mid-20th century prediction:
“There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.”
Lewis Mumford was one of the most important American philosophers of the 20th century. But as with Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, John Muir, and all the greats, he’s mostly unknown among my fellow Americans who tend to embrace moronic amusement over intellectual and poetic contemplation.
Mumford dedicated his life to writing about “the good life of simplicity, self-sufficiency and community.” He deemed the suburbs “an asylum for the preservation of illusion.” His works also consisted of urgent warnings on how the “deceptive orgy of economic expansion” is poisoning civilization. He believed that limitless expansion eventually leads to total destruction of our cities and breeds neurosis of its inhabitants.
What a prophet.
In one of his major works, Mumford writes:
“This metropolitan world, then, is a world where flesh and blood is less real than paper and ink and celluloid. It is a world where the great masses of people, unable to have direct contact with more satisfying means of living, take life vicariously, as readers, spectators, passive observers: a world where people watch shadow-heroes and heroines in order to forget their own clumsiness or coldness in love, where they behold brutal men crushing out life in a strike riot, a wrestling ring or a military assault, while they lack the nerve even to resist the petty tyranny of their immediate boss: where they hysterically cheer the flag of their political state, and in their neighborhood, their trades union, their church, fail to perform the most elementary duties of citizenship.
“Living thus, year in and year out, at second hand, remote from the nature that is outside them and no less remote from the nature within, handicapped as lovers and as parents by the routine of the metropolis and by the constant specter of insecurity and death that hovers over its bold towers and shadowed streets — living thus the mass of inhabitants remain in a state bordering on the pathological. They become victims of phantasms, fears, obsessions, which bind them to ancestral patterns of behavior.”
At this point you might be saying to yourself: “Calm down, Erik. What a fucking time to be alive. Look at all the “progress” we’re making. We “live” longer. Look at our elevated living standards. Everything is improving. We are safer and more secure than ever before and we carry little supercomputers in our pockets. We’re all going to space soon. You can buy things and have them delivered to your front door in a matter of hours. Even the poor among us live better than yesterday’s kings. You’re lucky you weren’t born somewhere else in some other time where you wouldn’t be allowed such grievances.”
If you can divorce yourself from the status quo and its wretched gatekeepers and refuse to become just another one-dimensional marionette in this absurd spectacle, then hell yeah, it’s a strange and beautiful time to be alive. It is. But many of us are unable to detach ourselves from the nonsense. Instead, we’ve evolved into unthinking and relentless consumers who readily conform to the social scheme of things, the “normal cultural man” as Kierkegaard put it, who sheds his or her authenticity for a cultural role.
Today, we are people who value comfort over freedom, servility over sovereignty, groupthink over creativity, having over being, security over LIFE.
In other words, because we are afraid to face, head-on, the realities of the human condition, we’re easily susceptible to the mindfuckery of the outside world. We become passive and obedient folks who barricade ourselves behind feel-good illusions and lies and are easily won over by the dubious narratives and fear campaigns whipped up by the thick-witted demagogues among us.
With the erosion of common sense and our instinctual wisdom, the modern world is vastly inhabited by incompetent citizens who easily fall prey to the illusory fantasies of the managerial and political elite.
As Erich Fromm put it, “Most people are not even aware of their need to conform. They live under the illusion that they follow their own ideas and inclinations, that they are individualists, that they have arrived at their opinions as the result of their own thinking — and that it just happens that their ideas are the same as those of the majority.”
Carl Jung, one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, understood that the further we rescinded from our instincts the sicklier and weaker we were inevitably going to become as a species.
For humans to develop consciousness — a state of awakeness — a split from the instinctive base of our animal nature was needed. But Jung believed that the separation from the ancient wisdom of our instincts had gone too far.
Humans had become too domesticated, too civilized.
“Civilized man,” Jung writes, “is in danger of losing all contact with the world of instinct — a danger that is still further increased by his living an urban existence in what seems to be a purely manmade environment. This loss of instinct is largely responsible for the pathological condition of contemporary culture.”
Jung reminded us that too much civilization begets meaninglessness, “and the lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and full import our age has not yet begun to comprehend.” He goes on to say that the “upheaval of our world and the upheaval of our consciousness are one and the same.”
With our fierce impulse toward conformity, our synthetic appetites for material possessions, and our relentless obsessions with speed, conquest, success, machines, and gadgets — Jung saw these things as the antithesis to a healthy society.
Jung goes on to write these prophetic words:
“All time-saving devices, amongst which we must count easier means of communication and other conveniences, do not, paradoxically enough, save us time but merely cram our time so full that we have no time for anything.
Hense the breathless haste, superficiality, and nervous exhaustion with all the concomitant symptoms — craving for stimulation, impatience, irritability, vacillation, etc. Such a state may lead to all sorts of other things, but never to any increased culture of the mind and heart…
The delusion of steady social improvement has been dinned into them so long that they want to forget the past as quickly as possible so as not to miss the brave new world that is constantly being dangled before their eyes by unreformable world-reformers.”
As civilization continues to fling itself to pieces, perhaps the only wise thing to do is STAND BACK.
Stay far away from the corporate media and the momentary popular imbecilities that permeate modern culture.
Disconnect regularly from the digital madness that has so many of us spiritually benumbed. Unplug and get outside, get healthy, get out of debt, learn a craft or a skill, romp like a madman in nature, find solace in the silence of the infinite, slow down, experiment with plant medicine, read old books, deeply, and learn to grow stronger with less.
There are no political remedies or economic solutions to the dilemma we find ourselves in. No leaders are coming to set things right. Their allegiances are elsewhere. It’s on us, you and I, to alter our attitudes towards life, to revolutionize our hearts and minds, and lean into the sublime.
Let go and BE. “Being is burning, in the truest sense,” Henry Miller tells us, “and if there is to be any peace it will come about through being, not having.”
There’s an unimaginable world out there beyond our man-made spectacle, beyond the petty dramas of our domesticated lives — a world of “endless inhuman beauty.” We must learn to “uncenter our minds from ourselves,” in the words of the poet, “unhumanize our views a little” and learn to identify ourselves with the whole divine nature of things — the earth, the night sky, the sun and stars, the mountain forest and the running streams.
Step away from the endless parade of flickering images and reclaim your life. Out of the ashes, we must prepare to rebuild a new world rooted in the life-enhancing values of community, cooperation, beauty, love, and poetry — a world integrated with rather than in opposition to the natural world we came out of.
I‘ll end with a little poem from one of America’s finest 20th-century poets, an artist who’s been largely forgotten in a nation that’d greatly benefit from a renewed attention of his works — the great Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962).
Then what is the answer?- Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history… for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.