Existentialism’s Popularity and Mass Society
Significantly, existentialist schools and thinkers have been popular throughout the modern era. Sartre, Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, have all been popular, and many fiction writers whose work displays an existentialist strain (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.D. Salinger) have been popular as well. Zen, too, has been remarkably popular, having been presented to Western culture through a variety of writers—Thomas Merton (Mystics and Zen Masters; Zen and the Birds of Appetite), Jack Kerouac (The Dharma Bums), Robert Persig (Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), and D. T. Suzuki (Essays in Zen Buddhism). And, of course, there’s the popularity of St. Therese, whose The Story of a Soul has sold millions of copies.
The popularity of these thinkers and schools occurs too frequently and consistently to dismiss it as coincidence. I think there is something intuitively appealing about existentialism in modern society. Put another way, I believe there is something about existentialism that attracts the modern individual precisely because he is a modern individual.
The term “mass society” has become the worn-out whipping boy of almost everyone who has taken issue with modern pop culture, but it is still a good term and provides the intellectual framework for understanding why existentialism is such an intuitively popular philosophy of life. My analysis of mass society here will not be unique or insightful, but nonetheless useful for understanding why existentialism has such an intuitive appeal.
Mass society can be defined as a one-dimensional culture where everyone is filled with the same perspectives and ideas. Culture increasingly becomes a mass society as an increasing percentage of people come under the influence of the same things.
Mass society has been a growing trend in modernity. In earlier ages, a person in, say, Ohio, would not see and hear the same entertainment as a person in Georgia, much less as a person in Europe. There was no radio or television or cinemas, so things had a more local flavor to them. As modernity progressed, everyone increasingly came under the same influences as people watched the same movies, got information from the same networks, and read the same magazines. As the mass influence got more powerful, a snowball brainwashing effect took place: Mass society increasingly reinforced itself as people came to see that other people were watching the same things and increasingly holding the same attitudes or approaches to life that mass society’s channels presented to them.
Unfortunately, the channels of mass influence have a natural tendency to appeal to the culture’s least common denominator. The channels want to appeal to as many people as possible, so they stoop as far as they can without losing too much “off the top” (i.e., from the more intelligent and virtuous segments of the population). As they stoop successfully, they pick up more and more viewers/readers and increase their numbers. Over the years, as their viewers/readers increase, there’s fewer and fewer individuals at the top because more and more individuals are raised on banal fare. At some point, the channels of mass society have virtually no motivation to appeal to any higher instincts whatsoever and, instead, have it in their interest to increase the culture’s appetite for banality, resulting in a culture where people are amusing themselves to death—a culture that is “distracted by trivia” and caught up in a “perpetual round of entertainment,” a society where “serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk,” to borrow a few quotes from Neil Postman’s well-known work, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
There are many problems with this banality, but the problem most relevant to the popularity of existentialism is the banality’s tendency to produce artificial essences. As we become increasingly banal and captivated by shallow things that cannot sustain us, we tend to grab at more and more banality and, in effect, adopt the banality as essences.
A few examples are in order. If a person engages in art, he is no doubt engaged in a high calling and one that, pursued rightly, will occupy much of his time and attention. In addition to understanding the rudiments of painting, he will in all likelihood study other artists and their styles; he will practice; he will contemplate potential paintings; he will look at landscapes and people to see if they would make good subjects. The serious artist, in short, can become very involved in his art, to the extent that “being an artist” is one of his few essences. The same goes for a person engaged in literature, music, philosophy, theology, contemplation, prayer, and charity. These are “noble” pursuits, pursuits that exercise our highest (immutable) essences.
Now look at the man who has no taste for those noble pursuits (because he has been shaped by mass society and its banality). What essence does he assume? The answer is: Lots of essences that are constantly shifting. Racquetball player, golfer, NASCAR fan, fantasy football league champ, hunter, fisher, beer can or sports card or antique collector, lake-front cottage owner, investor. None of these offer enough sustenance to define a person for prolonged periods, so the mass society man just grabs at a bunch of them and sifts them throughout life, rotating them between the seasons (golfing and fishing in summer, bowling and hunting in winter) and shifting to new ones as he ages (beer expert in his twenties; wine expert in his fifties).
In short, at the risk of sounding shrill, the elevation of banality has resulted in a culture that screams, “essence, essence, essence: all essence.” And worse, it’s artificial essence. If it were the essence of the artist or the charitable essence of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, that would be fine because they exercise the noblest callings. But here it’s all artificial essence at a dizzying pace.
In such a culture, it is not surprising that people intuitively tend to find existentialism attractive because the types of existentialism have this in common: They freeze the self-regarding essences that are endorsed and encouraged by conventional culture. Existentialism ignores and/or subjugates artificial essences to the pure, simple act of existence and, in a sense, balances out the “essentialism” that swarms contemporary culture.
The Lure of St. Therese’s Existentialism
To return to the point made in the first part of this article: I believe St. Therese came to us at a particular time for a particular reason. She came as an answer to mass society—not as a cure, necessarily, but as a way to holiness that would work well in an era of increasing comforts and technological advances. Therese herself thought that she had a special mission and that she was the accredited messenger of a new path to holiness.
St. Therese’s existentialist Little Way is important for contemporary living because it combats modernity’s essentialism. But it is also important to understand that The Little Way is uniquely situated for the modern era because it permits us to enjoy the era’s comforts and pleasures. Just as St. Therese enjoyed the things of bourgeois middle class French life but still made great strides in holiness, we too can enjoy the amenities of modern living and still pursue a holy life.
I think this is highly important for understanding why St. Therese is arguably our most important saint today. The modern world has a lot of attractive amenities. Technology has deposited a wave of fantastic entertainment at our ankles. Average wealth is so high that fun trips and possessions are within most people’s reach. I can sit in my Michigan family room and watch a college football game from Alabama; I can fly to New York and see some of the best plays and musicals of all time; I can ride roller coasters; I can load 10,000 songs into a contraption the size of my wallet; I can surf the Internet, tracking down whatever information interests me; I can watch classic movies from my computer.
With the Little Way, I can do any of these things without forsaking a religious (i.e., higher) pursuit. St. Therese didn’t consider surrendering the shallow things of nineteenth century bourgeois society, and neither should we consider giving up the shallow things of twenty-first century technological society. They’re too much fun.
Now, I don’t deny that there is a lot wrong with modern entertainment. I tend to agree with Malcolm Muggeridge’s statement that modern entertainment celebrates the beehive of artificial and self-regarding essences that are the trappings of mass society: “Never in human history have the unworthwhile things of life been presented so alluringly, through advertising making people want more and more things, and especially the idea that joy and supreme happiness can be achieved through carnality.” I also think most modern entertainment is a sheer waste of time, and is often just a vehicle to keep us riding past the ennui and depression that tends to be our fate if we stop to consider the meaninglessness of the silent universe that is the touchstone of Camus’ absurd.
Moreover, some things simply can’t be embraced. Merton was careful to point out in the above quote that St. Therese enjoyed the bourgeois things that were not incompatible with her vocation. If bourgeois society had advocated pornography, she would’ve eschewed it. The same with drugs, alcohol abuse, and violence. And it’s not just obvious evils, either. The “milder” things (a nice car, an exotic vacation) that are celebrated by pop culture could be incompatible with religious existentialism because they tend to be wrapped in the existentialist poison of self-regard: These things make me “cool”; these things make me “the man.” If we’re going to enjoy the things, fine, but our enjoyment must be approached with the existentialist attitude: Enjoy the stuff or don’t enjoy the stuff, like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, equally happy either way because you’re not thinking of yourself when you engage them.
The whole issue of enjoying modernity’s amenities reminds me of a story about a holy desert father who found himself in a village at the same time that a beautiful woman was processing through the streets nude. His fellow monks covered their eyes, but the old man stared. After she was out of sight, the desert father asked the brothers, “Didn’t you look? I did. She was beautiful.”
The point of the anecdote isn’t that the desert father then fantasized about the woman. The point is, he was detached from essence—living an existentialist-like life—so he was able to take in the woman’s beauty without his imagination or ambition effecting a tectonic upheaval in his soul, causing thoughts of the pleasure she could give erupting in his heart. He just saw, objectively noted her beauty, and went on without more thought of her.
This anecdote is plastered with danger, of course. The average man can’t safely look at a naked woman. The desert father’s story has been re-told over the millennia, after all, because it is extraordinary. The rest of us are much safer not looking at her to begin with. But the point is, with an existentialist-like outlook, it is possible.
So it is with the fantastic technological entertainment at our fingertips today. With the proper approach or mindset, we can take it in and enjoy it, like St. Therese of Lisieux and bourgeois trappings, like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, like a Zen student receiving examples from the monastery latrine.
I think it is a properly sane approach in a culture that has forms of entertainment that attract even the strongest souls. Asking ordinarily souls to abstain from them is simply asking too much. And it’s unnecessary. The religious existentialist way of St. Therese works in any setting.Bookmark it: del.icio.us | Reddit | Slashdot | Digg | Facebook | Technorati | Google | StumbleUpon | Window Live | Tailrank | Furl | Netscape | Yahoo | BlinkList
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