Hell on Earth
The Pastiche of Paradise
This essay, an account of hell and how we have come to live in it, contains some slightly disturbing artificially-generated imagery. I believe one should guard one’s eyes against such horrors, so I have endeavoured to make my selection inoffensive and mild, but if AI monstrosities give you nightmares (as they do me) you might want to copy and paste the following into a text-only reader.
The lowest point is as it were the obscure reflection or the inverted image of the highest point, from which follows the consequence, paradoxical only in appearance, that the most complete absence of all principle implies a sort of ‘counterfeit’ of the principle itself.
René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.
1. The Ape of God
Hell is a replica of Heaven. From the earliest days of Christianity it was understood that the devil imitates the Lord. As St. Jerome wrote, ‘Satan imitates the sacraments of God’,a common trope, which drew its authority from the Gospels’ warning to the righteous to beware of ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’, and from Revelations, which foretells an ‘image of the beast’, which will speak for a false prophet at the End of Times. This fake divinity appears, in one form or another, again and again over the succeeding centuries, from St. Augustine’s warning that ‘the devil knows all the arts and wiles of this wisdom and uses it to the full’, to Jacobus de Voragine’s medieval story of Saint Martin, in which the devil appears as an angel of light, to Goethe’s Mephistopheles, who declares that he is ‘part of the power that eternally wills evil and eternally works good.’ to the appearance of the famous dictum that ‘the devil is the ape of God.’
As Christianity came into conflict with older, pagan beliefs, the idea that the devil was a divine spoof was used to justify persecution of pagan gods, particularly the central figure of the trickster, an avatar of playful mystery inimical to the literate, literal and grimly serious Church,which took the Greek Pan, the Slavic Veles and the Norse Cernunnos to be living masks with which the devil counterfeited the deity and confounded good Christians. This explains why the devil’s ersatz divinity was invariably conceived as diabolic mockery — the three faces of Dante’s Satan, for example, which mimic the Holy Trinity — and parody — most often appearing in the medieval period as a buffoonish figure of comic ridicule — and not as a literal imitation, or pastiche, concepts which were impossible in the literalist Church where acts of sanctity corresponded exactly with states of grace. The wine of the sacrament, for example, raised in imitation of Christ’s sacrifice, literally became His blood. If the devil could imitate God perfectly, he would thereby be God, which was inconceivable.
The early modern period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw visions of hell in Christian art became more and more real and terrifying,and the power of the devil in Christian mythology grew to the point that, during the witchcraft hysteria of France and Germany, 60,000 people could be killed as his satanic agents. The devil began to be conceived as not just powerful, but intelligent — Shakespeare’s Antonio reminds us that ‘the devil can cite scripture for his purpose’ — and attractive — Milton’s Satan, based on the Lucifer of Aquinas and Augustine, is, it is often reckoned, the first Romantic hero; beautiful, tragic, full of character and far more interesting than the sappy God he rebels against. Representations of Satan, as we enter the Romantic period, begin to look very different from the medieval devil. The figurative, cartoon monster had solidified into a realist dandy, the colour had bleached from his cheeks and the roguish smiles had become tortured scowls.
Just as Lucifer was conceived as a literal person, so hell came to be understood as a literal event, a place of cruel and eternal punishment. This was in contrast to earlier Jewish, Babylonian, Greek and Norse underworlds which were depicted as one of many ‘realms’ through which the soul passed, some of which punitive, others poetic and allegorical. Even the early Christians did not imagine hell as a place of literal misery and lamentation.It was only when it became politically expedient to terrorise people with an appalling afterlife (just as it had been to stigmatise their jesting pagan gods) that the conception of hell we are familiar with today, reflected in fantasy novels and Hollywood movies, appeared, one of extraordinary drama, pain and physical torture, the ‘fire and brimstone’ underworlds of early-modern Christianity, Islam, Jainism and Buddhism;
The first modern counter-note was struck by the one of greatest modern mystics, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who imagined the devil not as a gorgeous moody Heathcliff, but as a down-at-heel civil servant;
It was a gentleman, or rather a Russian gentleman, of a certain type, no longer young, qui frisait cinquantaine as the French say, with rather long, thick, dark hair, only just streaked with grey, and a small, clipped, pointed beard. He was wearing a sort of brown coat, evidently cut by a good tailor, but rather threadbare, made about three years before and quite out of fashion now… in short he gave the impression of a well-bred gentleman who was rather hard up…
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.
In some respects this is a return to the early medieval buffoon-devil arising from an abstract hell (created, in this case, in Ivan Karamazov’s fevered mind), but here is the first suggestion in world literature that evil is unassuming, undramatic and ordinary, or, as Hannah Arendt would later describe it, ‘banal’. It would take another half century before Franz Kafka would give the devil’s abode a similar cast of extreme worldliness; the hell of The Trial and The Castle being warped and distended versions of ordinary modernity, staffed with the same kind of shabby, secular devils that Dostoevsky, Eliotand Conrad imagined. Artists, the canary in the coal-mine of spiritual experience, were beginning to realise that, as the Latin phrase had it, Corruptio Optimi Pessima — ‘the corruption of the best, is the worst’.
We begin then to see, over the course of the twentieth century, and into our own time, two ideas, which slowly coalesce into one awful truth. The first is that hell is not the vivid opposite of heaven, but a dull or degraded duplicate of it. In the nightmares of Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick — and then in our own postmodern world, which they prefigured — we perceive justice, joy and reality, but nightmarishly warped, fragmented, hollow. The second idea is that hell is not a place to come, nor even an idea in the mind, but a reality, made and realised by man on earth. Hell is no longer, for us, the dark underworld, but the brightly-lit overworld; our places of work, our places of fun, our states, our institutions and, the model for them all, our prisons.
According to Ivan Illich, modern institutions, which trace their origins back to the high medieval period, are founded on the corruption of ‘the best’, in this case the Christian ideal of free brotherly love — exemplified in one of the most radical stories in the Bible, that of the good Samaritan — which was transformed from a direct expression of compassion for an outsider, one ‘not of us’, into a network of bureaucratically-managed obligations to pay various taxes to the ‘loving’ church, which would act charitably in the name of the name of the individual. From the Church to the state, the school, the hospital and the office, all of which inherited the same ersatz virtues, coopted by the system and exploited for its own ends.The foundation was laid for the nightmare pseudo-reality which imprisons us today.
Our hell is a photocopy of blessedness.
2. Oh, Counterfeit World
The origins of the counterfeit world lie in the self-informed self, or selfish ego, which, like the institutions it creates and maintains, also depends on selflessness for its legitimacy. Ego has no value of its own, any more than a computer does, which is why it must co-opt representations of value, virtue or authority. Not knowingly, or consciously, for consciousness is the source of the quality which ego lacks. Rather, the depthless surface of self, the form of life, is automatically exploited for its own ends. Ego transforms experience into a collection of discrete things, each related to the other through threads of causality and sympathy. We call this manufactured structure ‘the world’, or the material universe, a useful model, factually accurate, but without interiority, or quality. Self separated from consciousness feels the pain of living in this projected world — in its own sterile production — and seeks to inject quality into experience through what it calls ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ — art, philosophy, love, God, ‘meaningful experiences’, ‘radical ideas’ and the like — but it only succeeds in reintroducing itself.
Thus meaning, for the self, terminates in reproductions of itself, a fabricated world as hollow as the two-dimensional entity which is manufacturing it. Forms which emerge from selflessness — radical ideas, for example, the poetry of great teachers and artists — are automatically integrated into the very structure that self claims, in its ‘spirituality’ or ‘radical thought’ or ‘moral progress’, to be endeavouring to escape from. This is how the fate of so many sublime feelings, beautiful creations and revolutionary ideas is self-parody (a plastic Jesus hanging from a rear-view mirror, a box of tissues decorated in expressionist art, a Ted Kaszinski T-shirt), how one’s own pristine, unique consciousness comes to resemble a latex mask of itself, how fine artists so often end up producing gross parodic caricatures of their earlier work and how the earth we love comes to be submerged under symbols for the nature these same symbols have suffocated.
Ego then is a cliche machine. In a world made by and for ego we find ourselves in a pasticheof ‘the best’, which is to say, in a complete, reality-engulfing replica of paradise, nirvana or Brahman. This state, of blessedness or liberation, is understood in Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism and mystic Christianity as being beyond selfhood, and therefore beyond time and space. This entails complete freedom from the burden of will or desire, and therefore of choice. The central message of The Baghavad Gita, for example, is that one’s personal will must be surrendered to a higher power, a theme echoed in Christian ideas of surrender (‘Thy will be done’) and Taoist and Buddhist accounts of desirelessness. With no self, and no will, there is, consequently, no death, no thought, no suffering, no privation and no sin. Paradise is freedom, from all mental and physical constraints, a heavenly state which, insofar as it can be represented, ego then reflexively duplicates.
Today, ‘the best’ has been shorn of its theist character. Just as the devil is now a shabby bureaucrat, so paradise is a middle-class Ashram, an atheist ‘enlightenment’ or a secular ‘utopia’. Ego’s image of blessedness remains the same as it was for Hindu swamis, Buddhist monks and Christian mystics, a state free of death, loss, fear, craving, privation, loneliness and literalism,but with nothing ‘beyond’ or ‘beneath’ its own self-generated representation, the ‘good’ of ego becomes absolutely meaningless, as its crowning philosophy, postmodernism, openly proclaims. We who live both in and as this world find ourselves confronted not with the opposite of selflessness, choicelessness and desirelessness, but with their replicas. Corruptio Optimi Pessima. The realisation of ten-thousand years of progress, is not a medieval inferno, but a deathless, multi-player video game. The best, corrupted, is not its inverted, negative pole, but its depthless facsimile. Our hell is a photocopy of blessedness.
Let’s take a look at some of the salient features of the counterfeit world, one which has fully absorbed ‘the best’, in which all transcendent spiritual or moral qualities have been absorbed and duplicated. In the replicant world man is, first of all, forced into a pastiche of liberation. ‘Being’ is honoured over having and ‘experience’ is more valuable than possession; man becomes a rootless ‘nomad’, ‘free’ to wander as he pleases (through unplaces which are all, reassuringly, the same). Time collapses into a frozen, pastless, fateless, ‘present’; instead of the hellish misery of industrial labour, there is the deathless ‘play’ of viddy games, travel, binge-watching, sport and fun open office work. Existence is ‘pure’, hermetically sealed from dirt, corruption and surprise. We are ‘freed’ from carnality, inequality, privacy and pain. In such smooth perfection, secular Buddhism naturally becomes mainstream and vast corporations promote mindful worklessness.
As postmodernity progresses, so work, leisure, society and even the body become immaterial, ‘spiritual’. With the dissolution of the body comes ‘freedom’ from any form of limitation. In the counterfeit world, all borders and limits have been dissolved, not just between modernist institutions, but between all the separate cells of natural existence. Implicit, ineffable, primal union with the other appears, in the pastiche of paradise, as a fusion of form. Men and women become the same, cultures become the same, high and low art dissolve into oneand finally, horror of horrors, bodies themselves dissolve into each other. Think of being forever trapped in a video game in which no limits exist, no borders, no stable form at all. You must scream, but you have no mouth.
The postmodern condition appears to transcend the limits of art as it does of dream—it ‘breaks the fourth wall’ and reminds the audience of its own artificiality—but in its rational separation from the dream, the self-conscious dreamer-spectator just becomes more self-conscious. She is lucidly dreaming, which excites her with Godlike powers, but is still radically separated from the pseudo-magical objects she plays with.True transcendence is simultaneous separation from the object and, at the same time, unfathomable union with it. I know I am dreaming—a knowledge which separates me from the events of the dream—while, at the same time, I am one with it. The same extraordinary experience occurs in transcendent lovemaking. My self as autonomous individual is heightened, my absolutely alone male-self as distinct from her equally isolated female-self, while, at the same time, we merge into one thing. The alternatives—mere separateness and mere merging—are both nightmarish. We may think of the former as the temporally warped self trapped in a photograph, and the latter as the spatially warped self fused with a pile of other selves.
The play of life, the creative joy of the universe itself (understood in Hinduism as Lila, or divine play) also appears in a nightmarishly warped form in our hellish counterclock world. It appears in our postmodern condition as enforced irrelevance, art for art’s sake, or complete alienation through music, image and myth. We are compelled to live in a spectacular substitute of reality which thereby consoles us for having to live there. We call this consolation ‘pleasure’, but it brings no pleasure, no joy, only a wispy frustration, a sense, as we constantly consume music, film, literature and art, that what is actually profound, moving and playful, what is actually meaningful, is far, far away. Finally, as we live ever more completely in the simulation of reality, our lives become, effectively, novels, films and theatrical productions, but empty, shoddy, creepily unreal and frighteningly amoral.
A counterfeit world without borders and limits is necessarily one without morality. The received morality of pre-modernity, the codes and laws and norms of ‘traditional’ society, are not superseded, they simply do not exist. This is sold to us as freedom from ‘metanarratives’, from ‘anxiety’, from ‘the subject’, but as Fredric Jameson reminds us, a world without any difference between ‘me’ and ‘not me’ is ‘not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling.’ We thus enter a postmodern world familiar to all of us, one in which the individual is numbed, stupefied and perfectly amoral. A world of emotionless children, bored lovers, comotose grandparents, vacuous faces everywhere. Again, this has the appearance of liberation, for the ‘mentally ill’, the drug-addict and the mystic are all free of the moral demands of subjectivity and objectivity. The saint has a higher morality, the madman none.
A similar saintly appearance is given to postmodern freedom from choice, magically lifted from humanity’s shoulders. The anguish of ethics, which the man of integrity learns to sink into the demands of fate, or into loving awareness of the moment, the postmodern man simply hands over to an artificially intelligent algorithm. Morally difficult decisions, like privatising water companies, or firing employees, or dumping boyfriends can be given to automated systems, which are then anthropomorphised into friendly advisers. Again the one looks like the other, and again, the surface of the decision-free modern appears as blithe as the liberated mystic, for neithe rhave to face the agony of choice.
Ultimately, the freedoms of the ersatz world — from the body, from the mind, from all social and psychological limits — rest on the ultimate freedom, promised in heaven, and in its counterfeit on earth; freedom from death. ‘O Pāvamana, place me in that deathless, undecaying world wherein the light of heaven is set, and everlasting lustre shines, [and] make me immortal in that realm…’ cried the earliest Hindu supplicant; a prayer echoed over the succeeding millennia in every religion on earth, but which had to wait until the digital Kali Yuga to be realised. Man now stands on the threshold of artificial immortality, before a world in which there is no pain, no decay, no loss, no death.
In the replicant world, man’s cares have been salved, his suffering is at an end. The postmodern state appears to offer heavenly freedom from the pain of the self and freedom from its lonely, alienating experience of being separated from the universe; but this is not, as in varieties of genuinely transcendent religious experience, a state in which the subjective self is overcome and its alienated condition transcended. The condition of postmodern enlightenment arises instead from fusing the self with the system. Pain is not mastered, it is anaesthetised; impotence is not overcome, it is virtually liberated; social problems are not solved, they are evaporated into an abstract impossibility, the utopia of the five sided square. We are promised a world without death, what we are given is living death.
In the counterfeit world, the soul is exposed, all are welcome, everyone is nice, everything is strange, life can be created, man has become a god, with godlike powers, all are propelled into the timeless present, it is paradise, enlightenment and grace rolled into one; but without transdimensional wholeness, without unifying meaning, without the unconscious. It is timelessness cut off from fate, from the totality, and therefore from individual uniqueness. Compare the experience of pre-literate life, in which man lived in a blended totality which occasionally rose ‘beyond itself’, as it were, into festival or carnival or theatre, with the post-literacy of our contemporary lives, in which video, film, music, advertising, civic design, social media and the rest of the internet fuse into an all-encompassing whole, with no beginning and no end. Both are free from the self-conscious distancing of modernity, which produced the great artworks of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the latter resembles the former as a forest, in which countless species form an interconnected whole, resembles a zoo, in which a handful of plants and animals are isolated in cages, with no relation to each other, to the spectators or to the zoo itself, except insofar as they are looked at or fed.
3. A Culture of Bits
Man no longer creates meaning, or meaningful things, with his own hands, and so, because one can only really understand that which one has made or participated in oneself, we find ourselves lost and confused in a vacuum of rootless bits which have no connection to lived experience, manufactured products of a culture which can only produce things which have no real relationship to anything else. These bits include all the goods and services we use, as well as all the art, music and literature we consume. Such cultural products, like everything manufactured by the system (including human beings), are carefully designed by massive, hyper-rational, technocratic organisations in order to keep nature and human nature under control; submissive, alienated, dependent.
The self today is a fragment, unable to see beyond itself, with no access, through the shattered mirror of its culture, to its own experience, or to that of its fellows, only to the machine which produces the isolated things it needs; food, shelter and culture, a culture which, like everything else the system provides, pacifies and subordinates us, normalises our dependency and suffocates our ability to think, act, feel or perceive reality directly, for ourselves. We do not attach ourselves to the products of the machine because we have been taught to, but because we are also a product; those who live their lives in a world of bits are formed from the pieces. They then find they recognise the shabby, lonely things of the system and feel comfortable in the company of system-produced things, for these things are just as rootless, shoddy and unconnected as the lonely self which encounters them.
This is why Philip K. Dick, one of the greatest of our modern prophets, wrote in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, that the problem with detecting androids is not that they lack empathy — the power to see beyond surface form — but that so many humans do as well. To the modern, fractured ego, our fabricated pomo-hell, including its art, music, literature, archetecture, social norms and so on, is quite normal. This is why so few people are not only unable discern colossal disparities between quality and non-quality — morality and immorality, presence and numbness, character and the show of character — but perceive the latter to be vastly superior to the former.
The schizoid nature of our shattered anti-culture precludes a need to take in a whole, to see the totality of the situation, to connect it all up. Every moment, every thing, in our postmodern state, stands only for itself. A vague ‘theme’ might hold together the disparate items of the variety show and the burlesque, of the ‘reader’ and the quote-book, of the mixtape and the shuffle, of the homage and the metaverse pantomime, like aspic jelly holds together kiwi fruit, olives, peas, luncheon meat and mashed up oyster. It is novel and striking, the individual pieces have some flavour, and technically it is a meal, but where does it belong?
The relentless pressure of the system is in one direction only, towards total fragmentation and — a cause, concomitant and consequence of fragmentation — total sameness and conformity. Every single, singular part of the system must be isolable and fungible, capable of being grasped and managed. That which forms a continuum, a social or natural whole, is a threat to the system, as is that which is genuinely unique, that which is unlike anything else; nature, and human nature, context and consciousness, which the system eats out from below, leaving a shell of culture which then cannibalises itself — having nothing else it can draw inspiration from — terminating in endless repetition and even more sameness. The result, now visible everywhere, is total culturedeath.
We reach a point where, at least insofar as they are part of the system or produced by it, all cars look the same, all hotel rooms, all coffee bars, all clothes, all buildings, all schools, all hospitals; everything, everywhere, all the same. All films, all songs, all books, all actors, all bands, even every face. All borders and membranes must dissolve, collapsing everything into a uniform grey, vaguely retro,vaguely recognisable, characterless soup. Here are three examples, from Alex Murrell’s ‘Age of Average’.
We could add books, chairs, children, teachers, doctors, airports, food, graffiti… The only things which appear to be different are the clothes, identities and postmodern ‘art-forms’ of the professional creative class. These, as compensation for the inner sameness of life everywhere, are assiduously curated works of intense novelty, the same adverts for lost nature as the ‘Wildflower Valleys’ and ‘Stag Meadows’ we call our newbuild estates. Unfortunately, without nature — the source of taste — they are hideously ugly and without unifying quality. Fashion in the past, for example, meant everyone wearing high quality, tailored clothes which simultaneously partook of a shared cultural form while, at the same time, expressing individuality. Fashion today means a billion men wearing the same jeans and padded jackets and a hundred men in New York dressed like this.
4. We are in hell, we are hell and we are all the devils of hell.
In a world in which everything is re-produced, in which nothing is itself, original, unique, we find ourselves in hell, and we find our selves both in the service of the devil and transformed into diabolic simulacra; the unity of our lives shattered into a kaleidascope’s nightmare of mere things, each one completely the same in its depthlessness yet intensely differentin its fragmented specialness. These things are all literally, or factually, ‘true’, as things are; as an image on the internet is ‘accurate’, as a dehumidifier ‘works’, as a restaurant meal is ‘tasty’, as a teevee show is ‘enjoyable’, as a pop-song is ‘funky’, as a book is ‘interesting’, as a medical degree is ‘valuable’, as a theory of morality is ‘useful’… and yet none of it connects up, there is no unifying context, nothing ‘behind’ or ‘beneath’ all these things. It is as the great prophet of the modern world Hieronymous Bosch showed us, a shattered image of mere bits, a literal hell on earth.
The reader may, at this point, ask herself, if all this horror is so — and it is — then why is it so, and what can be done? How can I free myself of the literal hell on earth we have created, wake up from the postmodern nightmare, sink down, under the surface of myself, to an actually existing reality or goodness? Where is the ‘unifying context’ that the system lacks? What is the selfless consciousness that ego has suffocated under the world? What is the non-literal truth?
Such questions, naturally enough, cannot be literally answered, certainly not happily evaporated in an up-beat concluding paragraph. I have addressed them elsewhere. For now it is enough to note that if you feel the horror I have outlined here, in that feeling, in the depth and reality of it, there is, at the same time, freedom from it. The problem with pain is not the pain itself, but in straining away from it, not liking it, not wanting it, ignoring it, numbing it. Face the hell of self, fully, accept the reality of it, and in that selfless acceptance, an extraordinary space opens up — or is cracked open — for genuinly liberating action.
This article contains sections which also appear in my forthcoming second edition of The Apocalypedia. If you’d like to pre-order a special edition hardback, please drop me a line.
I have given voice to an actually existing paradise in my ‘philosophy of all and everything, Self and Unself, and in my most recent novel, Fired. Read about them here.
Finally, to receive more articles like this, please…
’Sacramenta dei, sacramenta diaboli,’ from Contra Luciferianos.
‘Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.’ Matthew 7:15
‘The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.’ Revelation 13:15
St. Augustine, The City of God.
This expression is often said to have originated with Tertullian and St. Augustine, but I can find no mention of it in their work. It appears to be a modern coinage, although what the earliest use is I do not know. If anyone reading this does, drop me a line.
As it had been to the Hebrews who cast the various fertility and nature gods of the Levant in the role of devil.
From which our popular idea of the horned, goatish devil originates. Pan was demonised by St. Augustine and Eusebius, amongst others.
An example from ‘The Devil's Charter’, a play by Barnabe Barnes;
Hell’s terrors, Hell’s lamentings, Hell’s shrieks, Hell’s fires,
Hell's devils, Hell's darkness, Hell's conceits,
Hell’s dreadful monsters, Hell’s eternities,
Hell’s obdurate hardness, Hell’s restraints.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.
William Blake said Milton was ‘of the Devil's party without knowing it’.
it is unclear that St. Augustine even believed in hell, at least not as a literally real place. Origen of Alexandria also seems to have been unconvinced by the idea of a real, eternal hell.
The Quran, tells us that disbelievers will have ‘garments of fire… cut out for them; boiling water will be poured down over their heads. With it will melt or vanish away what is within their bellies, as well as [their] skins.’ The Vision of Tundale, a medieval English poem of the twelfth century described hell as containing all manner of ‘worms and toads and venomous beasts that lay many upon the wretches and gnawed and trod them with their feet and with their sharp teeth.’ Examples could be indefinitely multiplied. Only Islam and Christianity — particularly medieval Christianity — emphasise eternal punishment however. Jain, Buddhist and Hindu hells could be equally ferocious, but they were redemptive.
T.S. Eliot’s famous ‘Hollow Men’…
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar…
Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, speaks of a ‘papier mache Mephistopheles’.
This idea has its first recorded source in Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics, in which an ‘excess of virtue is vice’. I’ve been unable to pinpoint where the modern Latin formula first appeared.
This is in some measure what Oscar Wilde was referring to when he wrote that ‘Charity creates a multitude of sins’. True charity, ‘caritas’, refers to giving to one in need, not sustaining neediness, which serves the powerful. ‘It is immoral,’ wrote Wilde, ‘to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.’ These ‘horrible evils’ are a counterfeit of the selflessness that charitable institutions — including that most charitable of institutions, the state — depend on for investment and legitimacy.
Fredric Jameson, in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, explains the difference between parody and pastiche
Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the ‘stable ironies’ of the eighteenth century.
St Augustine, in The City of God, described paradise as not being ‘circumscribed by any physical boundaries’, St. Gregory of Nyssa, in De Hominis Opificio, emphasised it is ‘not a physical state’, The Taittiriya Upanishad tells us ‘There is no specific identity, and no relation’ in liberation, and in The Lankavatara Sutra nirvana is describes as being ‘beyond form and formlessness’. The Buddhist Kamma Sutta describes nirvana as a ‘dimension where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support. This, just this, is the end of suffering.’
The Chuang Tzu teaches that ‘To win is not to win; that is why it is called “virtue.” To get something is not to get anything; that is why it is called “virtue”. The Saṃyutta Nikāya has it that ‘From the complete fading away and cessation of the six bases (i.e., the five physical senses and the mind) there comes the cessation of craving. From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging. From the cessation of clinging comes the cessation of habitual tendencies. From the cessation of habitual tendencies comes the cessation of birth and death (samsara).’
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra; ‘The Tathagata has no birth, no death, no going, no coming, no arising. The Tathagata has no abiding. What has no birth is free from birth, what is free from birth is free from death.’
The anonymous fourteenth century Cloud of Unknowing, which was extremely influential, continually stresses forgetfulness, absence of imagination and lack of thought as a means to blessedness. ‘By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting.’
Revelations; ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’.
Religious teachings throughout the ages have presented their messages through allusive metaphor and parable. More explicitly, the Jewish Talmud warns, through the exegetical practice of ‘Pardes’, against strict literalism. The Tao Te Ching begins with the famous lines ‘The Tao that can be spoken of / Is not the Everlasting (ch’ang) Tao. / The name that can be named, / Is not the Everlasting name.’ St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians announces a new covenant ‘not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’ The author of The Cloud of Unknowing admonishes proud young novices for their ‘literal and perverse madness’ (my emphasis). And so on; a great many examples could be given.
Derrida; ‘there is nothing outside the text.’ Baudrillard; ‘The secret of theory is that truth does not exist.’ Žižek; ‘The meaning of a proposition is the mode of its verification.’ Rorty; ‘[Truth] cannot exist independently of the human mind.’ And so on. Pomo philosophers never come out and say ‘Meaning does not exist’ — that would be terribly gauche — they prefer to offer oracular suggestions that whatever meaning there is in the world is contingent on the human mind, which is usually understood to be a kind of ‘language factory’. Lacan; ‘The unconscious is structured like a language.’
Compare a pre-modern novel by Charles Dickens or Fyodor Dostoevski which combined serious thought with yarns of popular appeal, with postmodern spectator sports with or the films of Christopher Nolan, both of which also appeal to both abstract middle-class sensibilities and the visceral passions of popular culture. Both appear to efface the distinction between ‘mass culture’ and ‘serious culture’ which appeared during the modernist phase, both appear to be ‘off map’, and yet the pre-modern resembles the postmodern as ocean represents a swimming pool.
Objects on the counterfeit earth appear to be enchanted, or re-enchanted, displaying the living divinity of phenomena, which primal folk directly experienced, which we still love to encounter, in cartoons, but which agricultural and industrial society sucked from the world, leaving it jostling with mere things. The modern world digitally re-injects an enchanted character into these things from without. The faces of cute animals wink back at us from our telephones, our beds purr to us in the voices of dead actresses, our toothbrushes compliment us on our dental hygiene. We are again living amongst gods, but they are hollow, unable to converse with us, because all they know of us is the rapidly accessed and calculated outer form we present to the world.
Other parallels might be oneness with nature or with the truth of great art. The limited mind, radically separated from such experiences, obsessively focuses on objects. ‘Oh wow, look at that red leaf / that strange tree…’ The selfless self also picks out details, but its pleasure comes from unity with the whole.
From the Rig Veda (ix.113, Griffith).
Retro is such an important ‘aesthetic’ in the postmodern condition because without a present to express, only the past can be pillaged for ‘inspiration’.
This intensity, a result of hyperfocus on the isolated thing, which thereby becomes stranger and stranger, is often taken to be joy, even, at its limits, religious ecstacy.