A Diva Crying in the Wilderness

I was fortunate enough to have a relatively good education. As a child I was naturally inquisitive and a voracious reader. English was always my favourite subject at school and I ended up studying English Lit at Cambridge. After university, I enrolled in a philosophy course with The School of Economic Science, an extraordinary organisation committed primarily to the synthesis of the wisdom of East and West. It has roots in the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and his followers (the Fourth Way) and the Advaita Vedanta teachings of the Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math. It is also very active in promoting music and the arts, holding a yearly festival at Waterperry House near Oxford called Art in Action. Although many different traditions are represented in the SES, they clearly have a penchant for the Renaissance, a central philosophical voice being that of Marcilio Ficino, the star of the Florentine Renaissance.

I stayed for several years, and learned a great deal, including their meditation practice (TM) and the value of the “second night duty” practice of service (usually in the kitchen). As someone once commented in passing, this was the closest you could get to the monastic life without retreating from the world. It was promoted as “the householder’s way”, after all. (I did actually also train in a Zen monastery in Northumberland, and even toyed with the idea of becoming a postulant, although I finally decided against it, so SES seemed a good compromise).

What I am interested in exploring here is the issue of education. At Cambridge there were modules focusing on particular historical periods. I had to study the Greek Tragedians, Medieval, Renaissance, Augustan, Romantic and Modern literature in poems, plays, essays and novels. Some of this was fairly familiar, some of it completely new to me. It opened whole words of thought and imagination, which I continued to explore after I left, partly in the context of the SES (I remember a particularly inspiring weekend course on Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra for example).

It is notoriously difficult to avoid the assumption that other people share the same assumptions we do. After a few weeks at a Zen monastery, it takes a while to adjust to “normal life”. The first stop at a motorway service station coming down from Northumberland is always a shock. I have to make a conscious effort not to gassho (bow) in gratitude. On their part, people seem thoughtless, ungrateful and strangely coarse and vulgar, as well as being mainly overweight and unhealthy looking.

There is an obvious elitism and snobbishness here. This is a charge often levelled at the SES, which is seen as some as irredeemably middle class. It goes without saying that Cambridge also suffers from (and enjoys) a reputation for elitism. The danger is that people withdraw into an ivory tower of “good company” and lose touch with “ordinary people”. This can happen if you live in a castle in Ireland, teach Classics at Oxbridge, or get involved in a hierarchical spiritual organisation like SES. There is inevitably the establishment of an in-group and an out-group, with the out-group being by definition uninitiated, unenlightened, ignorant and deluded. This is a problem.

While I was studying at Cambridge, there was a strong resistance to this in-built educational elitism, both within the English department and other subjects, especially SPS (Social and Political Science). There was excitement around new radical, cool approaches such as Post Colonialism, Deconstruction, Feminism and Queer Theory. In other words, there was Postmodernism. We read and attended lectures on Derrida, Lacan and Foucault. We were the “cool kids”, possibly the most snobbish out of everyone, looking down on all the “normies” (especially the public school rowers) who bought into all the Cambridge BS. We were so snobbish, even Cambridge itself seemed beneath us. We were the avante gard. We were the future.

People who have immersed themselves in the strange world of Postmodernism often display amazement when they come across people who have no idea what they are talking about. So it becomes incumbent on them to educate people. The same is true of those Socialist Workers immersed up to their eyeballs in Marxism, or of fanatical Freudians, Evangelical Christians or Militant Atheists. Each has special knowledge that puts them above the ignorant, unreflective and unthinking masses. This is a problem.

The funny thing about all this, which I soon realised, was that the more I looked into Postmodernism, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Richard Rorty, Judith Butler etc. or into Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or any of the other great Modern and Postmodern intellectual giants, the less I was reading the great works of literature I was supposed to be reading. It takes a lot of time and effort to read all that stuff. However, there was a lot of pressure to switch from the traditional canon to this exciting new postmodern lingua franca which seemed to draw a deep line in the sand between the old and the new. If you wanted to be on the right side of history, if you wanted to be progressive and modern, you had to join the club and read the scriptures.

I half joined. Although my best friends were completely sold on it, with all the swagger, intellectual brio and moral righteousness of it all, I reserved a love of literature and quiet beauty and wisdom. My original love was the poetry of Keats. I loved Shakespeare. I was moved by Beethoven and Wagner. Although I was challenged and excited by some of the Postmodern ideas, I knew there was something wrong. It also seemed strange that someone from a working class background who made it to Cambridge against the odds would be diverted away from studying the great works of Dante and Milton in favour of the interminable ramblings of barely hinged postmodern thinkers. Wasn’t their rightful place in great tradition of the studia humanitatis, the liberal arts, being stolen from them? Where they perhaps the victims of an elaborate con?

Are we all the victims of a con? The great con of Modernity? What if it turns out that all the heat and smoke, all the self-promotion, all the touted brilliance and revolutionary genius of Modernity and Postmodernity is a lie? Perhaps a century or two from now people will look back at the late twentieth and early twenty first century as a cultural and intellectual dark age. A whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

I often forget that not everybody I meet has read Shakespeare and the Bible. I sometimes even assume that they have read or at least heard of Ficino. But not everybody has studied English Literature at university and not everybody has attended courses at the School of Philosophy. But how strange it is that a knowledge of our own rich cultural and spiritual tradition is reserved only for a few specialised elites! Shouldn’t it be our common heritage, regardless of class or background? Shouldn’t we be reading the great literary classics of the past for our edification and enjoyment as a matter of course, as the Victorians did?

Postmodernism has persuaded us that the past is anathema. Too much prejudice. Scientism has persuaded us that art, religion and culture are at best comforting illusions and at worst pernicious pre-modern cancers. The future is science and technology. Everything else is just bread and circuses, and should be treated as such by all self-respecting members of the intelligensia. These two strands of our modern landscape, Modernist and Postmodern, admittedly hate each other, but where they both agree is in their progressive obsession with the future and their almost obsessive compulsive desire to be rid of the moral and intellectual filth of the past. They both dream of wiping the slate clean, just as the great totalitarian regimes of Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler did.

In my estimation, this Brave New World of relentless Modernity is a Babylon system. Whether in the form of mindless consumerism and entertainment or narcissistic self-righteousness, we are subjected to a permanent propaganda campaign, in order to keep us persuaded that, to borrow from the famous Coca Cola slogan, “Modernity is it!” No it isn’t. As both Samuel Beckett and Damon Albarn saw only too clearly, “modern life is rubbish”.

The only way out of the nightmare of Modernity is to stop thinking of ourselves as modern. The only way out is authentic humanist education, which is about the human condition in all times and places, not about more and more Modern and Postmodern self-congratulatory propaganda. Modernity has created several generations of uneducated and mis-educated people who as a consequence can be manipulated as easily as little Subbuteo figures. Who can stand up against the might of Modernist ideologies without any appeal to the authority of the Bible, or Plato, or Emerson, because they’ve never read them? The con is that we are taught that the best way to think for ourselves is to avoid the influence of the great minds of the past. This is precisely why we cannot think for ourselves, and why we cede our thinking to politically-correct, cultural and technocratic experts.

Modernity is Babylon. It’s high time we wake up and smell the coffee and educate ourselves.