Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Modernity, Myth and the Scapegoat

From Histories of Things to Come:
It is too simplistic to dismiss Heidegger's thoughts on being and time as aspects of the Nazi narrative. But it is also wrong to say that his ideas can be read separately from their Nazi context. Heidegger was in the same ballpark, and that demands a serious reappraisal of his ideas.

In building their Aryan mythology against the Jews, the Nazis ironically appropriated the Hebraic concept of scapegoating. The scapegoat was originally an early Archaic, pre-Classical improvement (dating from around the seventh century BCE) on the sacrificial rites of other ancient societies. Scapegoating, a mental gambit which is alive and well today, occurs when one projects one's sins onto a goat and sends it off into the desert to die; this leaves one free from blame and responsibility, and able to get on with life without feeling guilty for one's wrongdoings.

The Nazis had a love-hate affair with modernization. In part, they were extremely advanced, yet their advancement demanded a scary divestment of older agrarian views which they held dear. In the assimilated Jews of Europe, they found an easy scapegoat for the angst and moral inconsistencies which arose from going too far, too fast.

The conflict between an embattled and fading traditional way of life and a modern international capitalism or communism informed the central narrative of the 19th and 20th centuries. At this point, several thinkers, not just Heidegger, grappled with the West's rapid advancement and loss of innocence. The West split into factions, which went to war with one another over precisely this problem. For all the profits that came out of the Great Depression - advancements in business, medicine, education and public health - the 20th century West endured a so-called Hemoclysm, or flood of blood. Genocide. Apartheid. The unspeakable disappearances in South America. Clutch your beast of a tablet if you must, but understand that it arrived in your hands at a terrible price.

The divided West spawned many reactionaries who devised different responses to the struggle between modernization (and postmodernization) and tradition. While German Naziism partly informed Heidegger's recipe for Authentic 'rooted' Being, a contending outlook came from a contemporary, also a professor, who saw how industry challenged the European soul. This alternative came from J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), whose study of early medieval languages and sagas laid the groundwork for his Middle Earth stories, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

A friend sniffily dismissed Tolkien's works as "children's stories," but this view completely misrepresents their significance. In England, Tolkien and his friend, C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) - like Heidegger in Germany - worried about the damage inflicted by industrialization on Western society. Both Tolkien and Lewis recognized the eternal human power of story-telling. While Lewis merged Christianity with fantasy and science fiction, Tolkien's central aim was to provide the West with a lost origin Ur-saga, a core common myth, using his scholarly study of Scandanavian early medieval sagas as his 'later' model. In a very modern way, Tolkien created an faux ancient myth suitable for modern times, based on the prehistoric memory of Atlantis, source of the "legendary West, a place of lost lands and mystery." Tolkien's Middle Earth stories were a form of modern Humanism, to help his readers cope with the fears and confusion sparked by industrial and technological alienation. Having fought in the First World War, Tolkien was aware of the devastation caused when western countries lost their common narrative through modernization. (Read more.)

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