The Ancient Modern
Le Pays de L’Amour-Propre / Joshua Alan Sturgill
I’d like to spend a little time reflecting on Rochefoucauld’s suppressed maxims by imagining a fictional “country of self-love.” Like Socrates describing his ideal Republic according to the life of the soul, we might ask what kind of society would be created by Self-love if it were given the freedom to pour the shadows of its inner abysses over the outer world. What would be a Country of Self-love and under what external conditions does Self-love thrive?
Perhaps its first goal would be to complete the project begun by the modern world: of eliminating pain and inflating pleasure. Self-love desires to reduce all reality and all language about reality to the pain/pleasure dichotomy. Truth and beauty are, to it, superfluous. Good and evil have no objective meaning and their distinction has no value.
Good now means comfort, quantity, titillation, adrenaline, power. To “be good” means to have advantage over others through superior skill, size or circumstance. “Celebrities” in the society of Self-love are not those worth emulating, but simply whom society most envies. Each self secretly wishes to be another, better self, and the culture devises ways to make each of its citizens believe he or she is secretly superior.
To “be evil” means merely to be out-dated, out-numbered, out-voted. Fashion—in dress, in entertainment, in politics—takes the place of the political ruler: a twisting, speeding, a serpentine tyrant called Opinion. If someone shares the common (rapidly changing) Opinion, life in the society of Self-love is easy. There are rewards: accolades and applause from many screens. But if someone speaks or acts against Opinion, life is uncomfortable, communication is difficult and relationships are strained. Shaming and non-recognition are the preferred punishments in the country of Self-love.
What kinds of communities comprise Self-love? Houses are pushed to the edge of the city, bedrooms are pushed to the edges of the house, souls are pushed to the edges of life. The city is its commerce. It makes no matter to Self-love which city and which parts of a city are “popular” as long as somewhere is touted as being better than elsewhere, and communities are divided by jealousy. No one should think of his or her own place, but of someone else’s. Self-love promotes any division and distraction originating in Opinion.
Large portions of the society of Self-love are given over to entertainment and collections of products. Fashion is use, so markets for fashionable products spring up to fill the houses with fashion, crowding out beautiful, practical and useful things. Everyone should clamor for a house filled with the same fashion, but everyone should believe his or her house is unique. Food should also become fashion and entertainment.
Diets should alternate with binges, health foods and junk foods will be manufactured by the same companies, packaged in the same ways, available in the same stores—but believed to be separate. Opinion about food should be more important than quality of food.
Large portions of the city should also be given over to transportation, for parked or moving cars. Green is an ugly color. Trees should be cut to make way for power-lines, not vice versa. No one should feel at rest in the country of Self-love. No one should quite feel at peace. No one should feel at peace at home or in the depths of the soul. Occasionally people should seem to find contentment in the city—intoxicated, under artificial lights, surrounded by Opinion and by beautiful bodies. Genuine peace and rest are contrary to life in the Country of Self-love.
In the Country of Self-love, questions of right and wrong, death and eternity, should either not come to mind or be considered as already answered. Religion should be simple and triumphant. Unbelief should be simple and triumphant. Each of these groups, believers and unbelievers, should consider the other an enemy. This will distract them from their common pursuit of further Self-love.
Entertainment, rather than religion or philosophy, should subtly direct people’s inner pursuits. Everyone will claim that art follows life, but unconsciously act as if life follows art. The art of the Country of Self-love is the new art produced by Self-love in imitation of Self-love. Art should move at such a speed that it can give various contradictory messages with little or no reflection or resistance. Art should seem to have unquestioned autonomy, though it is rigidly guided by Opinion. All that is needed is to say “this is art” for some story, object or event to be unquestioningly accepted.
The deepest desires and addictions of Self-love can emerge from the abyss under the guise of “art.” The New Art, the New Expression, the New Entertainment (three terms for the same work of Self-love) will, in reality, be the oldest forbidden ideas now unveiled with impunity. Self-love will no longer have to recoil from its own perversions or have them censured.
The old art and the old religion will be kept (in museums or churches) but only as the unfashionable negative example for the New Fashion to resist and ridicule.
Education in the Country of Self-love should never be individually directed. Self-directed people are a nuisance. Self-love will determine what kind of education its people receive, based on its current loves and considerations. Experiment, which was formerly the result of education, will now replace education. Experimental, fashionable curricula will be to education what art is to expression. The positive connotations of “system,” “focus” and “center” will hide the fact that education is now sporadic, unfocused and de-centering. Education will modulate continually, and undergo a complete renovation at prescribed intervals.
Citizens should be educated with the purpose of increasing their individual self-love to become contributors to the overall culture of Self-love. To this end, psychology should become more widely known, and its vocabulary commonplace. Rather than seeking causes and cures, psychology should begin enumerating, justifying and encouraging various kinds of Opinion. Psychology, the science of Self-love, should be subtly merged with education.
Self-love is fully aware that its Country will be fleeting and unsustainable. It only cares that it will be able to manifest itself at the expense and through the energy of all other creativity. If society should revolt against Self-love, should hate and reject it, this will only provide interest and distraction against its mounting boredom.
When the Country of Self-love loses its interest in displaying itself in a society, it will be content to declare war against itself and watch itself be pushed back into the shadows of individual human depravity. There it has a natural home; there it can incubate, to consider new and different kinds of emergence.