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The superficiality of our culture

This morning, re-reading Nietzsche’s early essay of genius about the strife between the ancient Greek gods, Dionysus and Apollo – The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music – I was struck anew by the utter superficiality of the (global) culture we live in. This superficiality was captured succinctly by Theodor Adorno in the 1940s when he lamented that what he called “the weakness of the theoretical faculty” in society at large was astonishing. But here I don’t want to talk only about the “theoretical faculty”; what I have in mind goes beyond even what many theorists of the postmodern (see for instance David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity) have perceptively described as postmodernity’s (and postmodernism’s, where postmodernism is the critical reflection on the culture of postmodernity) preoccupation with “surfaces”.

I would like to take my cue from Nietzsche, by using the opposing pair of principles denoted by Apollo and Dionysus, to say what I mean by “superficiality” – perhaps “denialism” would have been better, because it really concerns our culture’s “denialism” when it comes to acknowledging the inescapable suffering and pain in life, which is what – according to Nietzsche – the Greeks were able to acknowledge, and simultaneously elaborate on creatively, through the “marriage” between Dionysus and Apollo.

Dionysus, among the Greeks, was the god of music, drunken revelry and celebration of the fundamental oneness of all life, and during Dionysian celebrations, the individual surrendered to a state of intoxication which, according to Nietzshe, shattered his or her individuality, enabling them to experience a union with all others. It was the assertion of the unity of all being, from which one comes at birth, and where you return to at death.

In contrast Apollo, the god of the plastic, visual arts, stands for individuation, illusion, beauty, equilibrium and self-control. The way in which Nietzsche reconstructs and interprets ancient Greek history in The Birth of Tragedy construes it in terms of a kind of “truce” between these ancient enemies. In other words, while, in “barbarian” nations surrounding ancient Greek, or Doric, culture, Dionysus reigned supreme, with its “pessimistic” affirmation of suffering, death and the loss of individuality, among the Greeks this was mitigated by the operation of both principles in ancient Greek tragedy.

Apollo was present in tragic drama in the guise of the characters engaging in dramatic action, which reflected a kind of veil of illusion, cast over the terrible Dionysian truth of suffering and chthonic oneness with the primal forces of the earth (represented by the satyr chorus and the music). This, for Nietzsche, was a creative solution, on the part of the Greeks, for dealing creatively with the co-existence of the impulses represented by these two gods – impulses which are found in all cultures, but which are addressed very differently from one to the other. In the process – admitting the reality of pain and suffering in tragic drama (think of Oedipus Rex, Iphigenia at Aulis, Antigone), but casting this in Apollonian “dream-images” combined with Dionysian forces – the Greeks were able to create a “healthy” culture: healthy because, unlike later, transformed cultures, even among the ancient Greeks, they did not shrink away from staring suffering in the face, but “drew an Apollonian veil” over it.

With the advent of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, however, this “healthy” state of affairs gave way to an increasing denial of Dionysian reality in favour of the one-sided triumph of Apollo, but this time in the shape of the victory of reason, which Nietzsche construes as “Socratism”. It is expressed in images such as Plato’s in the Phaedrus, where the soul or psyche is depicted as a chariot being pulled by two horses, with the charioteer representing reason, the white horse spirit, and the black horse appetite or passion. With the help of the white horse the charioteer is able to subdue and control the black horse, but unlike the case of tragedy, there is no equal status of reason and irrational appetite here – where “appetite” or passion is the closest that Plato comes to the Dionysian principle.

According to Nietzsche, writing around the middle of the 19th century, the culture of his own time was even more in the grip of an unmitigated “Socratism”, that is, a rationalism that denied and erased any sign of Dionysus. Instead, it was increasingly predicated on the sole importance of reason – Apollo without Dionysus. In the Elizabethan era western culture could still produce tragedies – like those of Shakespeare – which instantiated a kind of equilibrium between Apollo and Dionysus, but by the 19th century, let alone the 20th and 21st, this “healthy” appearance of the tragic union between these two principles was all but gone.

It is worth mentioning that, in choosing to represent ancient Greek culture in this way – which, at the same time, represented the hallmarks of what he saw as a “healthy” culture – Nietzsche took a stand against the pessimistic philosophy of his older contemporary, Arthur Schopenhauer, who famously depicted life as a perpetual swinging of time’s pendulum between pain and boredom (“six days of suffering and one of boredom” – his dig at Christianity).

For Nietzsche, who was no stranger to pain (he suffered endlessly from unbearable migraines), Schopenhauer correctly saw the inescapable suffering of life, but instead of nevertheless “affirming” life, the way the Greeks did in tragedy, he negated it. By contrast Nietzsche, despite his awareness and experience of suffering, chose to “affirm” life. What he later called “the great health” was not – as seen in contemporary magazine-culture epitomised by Longevity magazine – the denial of suffering, but the joyful affirmation of life in Apollonian terms (albeit mitigated by acknowledging Dionysus), as among the ancient Greeks, the “shining ones”.

It requires no genius to tell that our “Prosac”-obsessed culture is even more in the suffocating grip of “Socratism” (I would prefer to call it “Platonism”, because it is Plato’s Socrates that Nietzsche has in mind, anyway) – everywhere people shy away from acknowledging the pain and death that visit the homes of every individual sooner or later. Even our cemeteries are located – in contrast to earlier ages – outside of cities and towns; the “family graveyard”, which is still sometimes seen on farms, is virtually unknown, as is the “deathbed”, where friends and family used to gather around a dying family member. Today the ethos is one of “deny (or anaesthetise) all pain, suffering and death” – something which, I believe, partly explains why people can’t deal with anything traumatic, except through the generous ingestion of tranquillisers and psychiatric or psychological treatment for “post-traumatic disorder”.

Today it would make no sense to orient education around the acceptance of human finitude, vulnerability and fallibility – everywhere we see the symptoms of a valorisation of reason which excludes or represses all acknowledgement of this. The rapid development of robotics is another symptom of the (in-)human dream of becoming immortal. Ray Kurzweil is paradigmatic in this regard. Is it still possible to write a tragedy today? Maybe Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (tellingly named Loman) – a parody of tragedy – was born of a realisation that, in our time of the superficial, anaesthetising belief that suffering and death can be overcome, people cannot really grasp the forces at play – the Dionysian and the Apollonian – in this most “human” of the dramatic arts.

There is hope, however, in that there are examples of tragicomedy around – the films of David Lynch, for example Wild at Heart, can be interpreted in these terms, although theatre of the absurd also lends itself readily to these films as an interpretive framework. Perhaps tragicomedy is the most appropriate genre for our era, except that it presupposes too much comprehension on the part of people. Yep, on reflection it is the soapie – with ridiculous tiltes like The Bold and the Beautiful – which really captures the kitsch, superficial tenor of the present better than anything else.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 13 February 2012

    Would you really call Plato’s “shadow being greater than the original” theory realism?

    I think the Greeks kept sane by blaming all unfairness on the caprice of the Gods.

    Like the Jews read the Book of Job!

    “Ours not to reason why, ours just to do and die!”

  2. Maria Maria 13 February 2012

    Bert, here you are talking of one of my “favourite” philosophers of all time. Even if one takes note of Nietzsche’s self-criticism, included in later editions of The Birth of Tragedy, it remains a fascinating book. The other thing that fascinates me about Nietzsche, is the way in which he almost anticipates the ecological crisis we face today in Zarathustra, if one takes his use of animals there seriously, in contrast to his use of most types of humans. The way I read it, his “animals” represent humans that are able to be “true to the earth”. Nietzsche would probably die on the spot if he could see what humans have done to the earth since his time. This also ties in with his critique of “Socratism”, of course.

  3. Daniel Berti Daniel Berti 13 February 2012

    I’d read the Pulitzer prize-winning book ‘The Denial of Death’ by Ernest Becker – if you haven’t already and want to look into this sort of thing a bit more.

  4. The Village Idiot The Village Idiot 13 February 2012

    I would not say the soapie “captures the kitsch, superficial tenor of the present better than anything else”, but rather the awards given out for the drivel that is supposedly cultured. Enter the Oscars, Grammy’s …

    Even when suffering is real (the loss of a relationship), “culture” often chooses to glorify the perspective of the “victim”, which more often than not is unhealthy. Are there any good semiotic studies out there on modern popular music, preferably from the standpoint of psychological health?
    (Self-)reflection is lacking: rather than providing an opportunity to come to terms with the realities of life, it is taken to mean that “this is life”. This is a criticism that might have applied to the Greeks themselves in their time – what appeared to be natural to them seems superstitious to us. But the reverse may hold (in part) as well.

    It becomes even worse when people consider a song to have put into words their “own feelings”; using the song as a substitute for their “own” authentic thoughts and feelings. Most even we are not even aware of the substitution, as mediated as it is.

    We are mostly blind to the forces that hold us in a bind, despite all our rational approaches (which Adorno would argue have been increasingly irrational). Insofar we are aware of those forces, we are as a species unable to change their direction.

  5. Lennon Lennon 13 February 2012

    Dionysus is the junkie living in the alley; the bag lady who scavenges through our bins on dirt day or the beggar at the traffic lights. Nobody wants to acknowledge his presence because of the discomfort or even guilt brought on by seeing that such a wretched existence and naked anguish is but a stone’s throw away.

    Politically, Dionysus could also been seen as “Big Brother” – the government which does not have the interests of the people at heart. Again, this is something that many refuse to deal with because as individuals “Big Brother” is to much to take on.

    On the other hand, Apollo is Johnny Depp, Kenny Kunene and Paris Hilton. This is the life of the jetsetters and and the idle rich. Of glamour and “perfect” looks. A simple look at any magazine shelf will show just how much this “lifestyle” is pushed on the average person. The slew of mind-rotting TV shows dedicated to the antics of the rich and their fabulous wealth. It is something which many strive to emulate.

    It is also the fairy tale of trusting “Big Brother”. All is right in the world if the government says it is. It is far easier to bury one’s head in the ground and ignore any moves to erode society’s freedom.


    “Honey what I heard on the news that they figured out that the gun… What happened is that there was an echo and, uh, Kennedy was, uh, asking, uh, Jackie what it was and that’s why his head flew, uh… Honey! What time’s Gladiators on? Are we missing it? Woo! I’m so…

  6. Bert Bert 14 February 2012

    Thank you for all the constructive comments.
    Lyndall, if what you are asking, is whether I (or Nietzsche?) would call Plato’s theory of the Forms being the archetypes for the “shadows” of mundane reality “realism”, the anwer is no – it is philosophical idealism, but it is still rationalist to the extent that it glorifies reason. There’s more to Plato than this “official” version, of course.
    Maria – Absolutely.
    Daniel, thanks for that recommendation.
    Village Idiot – a most pertinent contribution, thanks.
    Lennon – I agree that what Nietzsche called Dionysus is still very much around, even if most people would deny it – it is also at students’ rave parties where they do crack or ecstasy and lose themselves in the trance dance, wondering, the next morning, what happened the previous evening. I believe that, with Nietzsche and Freud, an acknowledgement of the relationship between Dionysus and Apollo returned to western thinking, and it is a thread you can follow from there through Lacan to Kristeva’s “abject”. In film noir you would probably find widespread acknowledgement of the Dionysian – just for one, the neo-noir by Katherine Bigelow, “Strange Days”, comes to mind.

  7. Lennon Lennon 14 February 2012

    I would venture that “Strange Days” sums it up perfectly. Another example in film, although not quite as dark, is Jonathan Mostow’s “Surrogates”. I don’t think I have ever seen superficiality (?) on an individual level pushed to this extreme in any other movie.

    Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” (I think) also demonstrates the relationship, albeit on a political level.

  8. Siobhan Siobhan 14 February 2012

    “…during Dionysian celebrations, the individual surrendered to a state of intoxication which, according to Nietzche, shattered his or her individuality, enabling them to experience a union with all others”.

    Surrender is a choice, an act of volition and therefore of individuality. I see the decision to relax inhibition not as a shattering of individuality but as the gradual disintegration of the personality. Inebriation and other forms of deliberate diminishment of consciousness seem more about escaping the Self than merging with the greater consciousness. If anything, inebriates of all kinds set up barriers to “union with all others” producing instead a withdrawal from intimate contact with another Self, settling instead for temporary amnesia. It seems to me to be an attempt to deal with the fear of the ultimate union with merged consciousness that comes only with death – in some belief systems, after thousands or millions of lifetimes in which the barriers erected by Ego Attachment (suffering) are deliberately dissolved thereby making “union” possible. The Dionysian state seems a facsimile of “union”, an ersatz version based in Time and therefore finite. Genuine “unity of Being” implies a Timeless condition, in other words – Eternity. Given that all we can experience in our present state is the Now and consciousness is what makes the experience possible, the use of it to understand what we call “reality” in as many forms as we can discern it seems to be the…

  9. Siobhan Siobhan 14 February 2012

    We don’t comprehend our own existence; we can only approach it metaphorically for we cannot SEE our consciousness or its tool – what we call mind. Apollo was after all the Sun god of the Greeks, the light they worshipped in philosophical discourse, in the dialectic tension between Being and Non-Being or darkness. Dionysus and Apollo both offered the same thing in my view: complete immersion in one or the other aspect of our dual existence as physical beings and non-physical consciousness that imbues but is not limited to mind. We live in a constant state of paradox; the superficial “realities” change but beneath it all is the paradox of the co-existence of darkness and light, great suffering and great joy, enormous ugliness and exquisite beauty. All are present all of the time but we perceive only a fraction of all that is. If we were only physical beings, we would not need minds just bodies. Dionysus offers the choice to be subsumed by the physical to the exclusion of awareness. Apollo offers the liberating effect of beauty perceived as perfection, an ecstatic union with an awareness outside of ourselves. This discussion puts me in mind of Georges de la Tour’s paintings of Mary Magdalene contemplating the reality of mortality visible only because of the light of a candle reflected in a mirror. The candle flame allows us to contemplate the scene whilst at the same time the mirror seems to be a reminder that what we think we see is not as we see it.

  10. Lennon Lennon 14 February 2012

    @ Siobhan: Would it be arrogant to suggest that we don’t necessarily need to comprehend our existence? We’re here, aren’t we? Then again I suppose you could just say: “Prove that you exist.”

    I ask because there is one thing which I think trumps trying to comprehend our existence and that is trying to comprehend our non-existence. Can anyone honestly claim to have gotten their heads around that? While I can accept that I didn’t exist at some point and that I will cease to exist again, it still has my mind going around in circles trying to imagine(?) such a state, or rather non-state.

    I think that the concept of an eternal afterlife is simply a reaction by those who cannot accept non-existence. I’ll admit that it can be a frightening concept, but it also a cold reality which is inescapable.

  11. benzo benzo 14 February 2012

    @Lennon: “Then again I suppose you could just say: “Prove that you exist.””

    The answer to that came from Descartes: “cogito, ergo sum”.

    My favourite philosophy on life: “….je ne regrette rien…….” (Edith Piaf)

    I did read some Plato, Aristoteles, Seneca and other compulsary litterature. I must confess that -at the age of 15-18- much of this did not sink in until years later and never to the exent of urgning me to re-read their works.

    Soapies and modern screaming (called “songs”) seem the ultimate of modern “superficiality”. Lovely term to describe this stuff.

    The fact that the recents deaths of some world famous stars have caused some immediate histerical performances followed by permanent silence, seems proof of their “temporarity”. The propped up last publicity seems a commercial stunt to milk the last penny out of recorded performances. Proof of the realisation of their “non existence” by the commercial world.

  12. Robard Robard 14 February 2012

    Bert, you old reactionary you. Denial of the tragic essence of our existence is the raison d’etre of the progressive project – of which I have up to now assumed you’re a paid up member.

  13. Maria Maria 14 February 2012

    @ Robard: I can assure you from personal experience – although he can speak for himself – that Bert is indeed in agreement with Nietzsche on this matter, but remember that it also entails Nietzsche’s Apollinian affirmation of life, in contrast with Schopenhauer’s negation of it.

  14. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 15 February 2012

    The reason that Plato was such a great philosopher is that he was both a right and left brain thinker, which is rare.

    His teaching of the Logical Debate process is still relevant today. His “when you speak with me define your terms” is particularly relevant in the “capitalism versus communism” debate which is a debate where everyone is talking past each other because they all mean different things by those 2 words.

    His “Shadow improves on Original” theory is the concept of evolution in embryo, and left brain intuitive thinking. Every mentor or teacher tries to get the shadow/pupil to where he/she surpasses the teacher.

    His analysis of human nature is as good as any psychiatrist. His advice in “The Republic” for people to never give power to those who want it because they are the wrong personality type still applies today.

  15. Lennon Lennon 15 February 2012

    @ Benzo: Touché! (although I personally know a few individuals for whom thought is an impossibility, but I digress)

    I must admit that my knowledge of philosophy (and philosophers) is sorely limited. The most that I have read is the preface to the copy of “The Communist Manifesto”, which I am currently busy with. I have a feeling, however, that I should have started with “Republic” or perhaps “Ethics” (I tried this book once and got lost after two pages).

    You are right though: Modern entertainment is rather superficial at best and seems to promote this sort of culture. An example is the recent “douchebaggery” phenomenon which is often lamented on various meme websites.

    Is saw something this morning on IOL stating that smiling is now considered “fashionable”. There are days when this sort of nonsense makes me wish for a giant reset button.

  16. benzo benzo 15 February 2012

    @ Lennon….on smiling
    The best artifical smile I have seen is by Pastor McCauley (spelling?) of the Rhema church. When his statement is finished he tries to bite both his earlobs at the same time while moving his head from left to right and back.

    Less impressive but equally artifical are the smiles of artists and politicians while shaking hands with cameras in sight.

    My father -an undertaker- could smile with his eyes or the corner of his lips. His porfession did not always allow for a smile.

  17. Richard Richard 15 February 2012

    Thought number one: I am wondering whether in modern times this has anything to do with the obsession in the West for multiculturalilsm? South Africa is more-or-less a cultural dependancy, and so imports a state-of-mind (or culture) that is only partially indigenous. Part of the multicultural ethos involves the idea that one should know a little bit about all cultures, and not a great deal about any one, including one’s own. For instance, in the UK, church holidays and the whole culture surrounding the Western church is largely forgotten. People will know about Eid, say, but not about Lent. And so the items within a culture that refer to specific leit motifs become extinguished. The expression “men descend to meet” is nowhere more true than within cultural meetings. After all, what is there to discuss inter-culturally within a multi-cultural context? Procreation, making a living, reducing inter-communal strife? One cannot begin to imagine a debate like women’s rights occurring within a multi-cultural state, unless it be by dint of the law. That is what is happening, I think. The legal state is taking over from the civil state, enforcing what cannot any longer be decided by consensus. And that simply leaves society itself with the crumbs to share, which invariably is what concernes the lowest common denominator : the footie scores, talent competitions, cooking, quick ways to make money…

  18. Richard Richard 15 February 2012

    Thought number two: the thrust of Western society since the onset of the Englightenment has been the alleviation of suffering. This then transmuted into the removal of suffering. Previously, the idea of life was (and forgive the cliches) that of a journey, rather than a destination. People were supposed to endure the life that the deity had invented for them: living, suffering, transcendence (if they tapped into their culture) and then death. Think of Piers Plowman, for example. Life was not a thing to be perfected. One was expected to strive, devote onesself to a cause, suffer for that, and through that, achieve elevation. A modern metaphor would be space exploration, and its manifestation in our culture, science-fiction. These invariably referred to journeying into the unknown, and expanding human possibilities and knowledge. Vast sums were spent in reaching the moon, and Mars was next. Now science-fiction tells of biological engineering and medicine going wrong, and huge sums are spent on living longer and being more comfortable, and free of disease. Our gaze has turned from the outside to the inside, from the distance to the space of our very bodies. The striving to go beyond becomes replaced with the desire to feather our nests, in the etymological meaning of that term. In our times, with the removal of discomfort seen as a legitimate motive, we have consciously to strive for anything else, especially more meaty culture.

  19. Paul Barrett Paul Barrett 15 February 2012

    I think that while there is a substantial veneer of superficiality over modern existence, there is a lot of substance for those who look deeper. I have yet to see someone argue convincingly that this is any different today than during earlier periods. It seems so, but this is because we have so many more people, and therefore both items of superficiality and depth have grown in number. Since it is easier to see (and grasp) the superficial, and also because the growth has likely been a ratio (i.e., each has grown by X%, but one was larger to start,) it makes sense that a shallow examination mostly shows a growth of superficiality. Ironically, this is a symptom of superficiality itself.

    Taking modern music as an example, there is a wealth of quality music being made, in my opinion more than in any other modern era, but due to the explosion of superficial music it is more difficult than ever to find creations of substance without additional effort (dumbing down of radio stations hasn’t helped either.)

    Nevertheless, I continue to find music with substance every time I care to look for it.

    I keep thinking that film was more substantial in my youth, except when I revisit films from my youth. Many are not as substantial as I thought. And there is plenty of fluff from before my youth.

    The real problem, and I suspect this is what Bert was getting at in his last paragraph, is lack of inclination on the part of many to look deeper.

  20. Siobhan Siobhan 15 February 2012

    @ Lennon

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. In general, I would much prefer to believe that death is final. When one has lived long enough (and for me that was age 30), complete absence is preferable to the survival of consciousness. However, I cannot be certain of annihilation so I’ve come to terms with living with uncertainty thanks largely to the work of physicists like Michio Kaku and Brian Greene (originators of String Theory), Astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell who has acknowledged numinous experiences he cannot explain away, Russell Targ, Hal Puthoff, and Charles Tart of SRI, Nobel Laureates like Sir John Eccles, Roger Sperry and dozens of other scientists who maintain that mind/consciousness cannot be defined in terms of neurones alone.

    Since we don’t know what consciousness IS we cannot know what happens to it in physical death. The thinking of Emerson (The Oversoul), Jung and Wolfgang Pauli (Synchronicity), David Bohm (Implicate Order) and David Peat and John Barrow has also weakened my early certainty that the mechanistic view of life is the only correct one. The shallowness of both popular and intellectual culture today is enough to make one long for cessation of consciousness but if it does survive, how should we live in accord with it? Wisdom comes in many forms from many sources and we need to proceed with care in dismissing that which makes us uncomfortable. Living with uncertainty may not be comfortable but it is always interesting.

  21. David Haddad David Haddad 16 February 2012

    Even Adorno’s buddy, Herbert Marcuse, in One Dimensional Man, didn’t see any way out of it. Fifty years on, with the horizons of postmodern development pushed so far back, we still cannot divine a happy outcome to it all.

    At this point, I’d say ubiquitous superficiality and the bad faith that comes from vaunting Apollo and gagging Dionysus is the least of our problems. The question is, how to remain a potent, spiritually sound force for the best of our essential humanity.

  22. Lennon Lennon 16 February 2012

    @ Benzo: I think that smiling (especially for the public) has become something of an art. Having worked in call centres I can tell you that I have also mastered the art of smiling or rather the sound of me smiling.

    When one has a client on the phone who is driving to you to drink, you still have to maintain a tone of friendliness. This is easily done by smiling while you speak. If done properly, the client will never know that you are, in fact, highly pissed off and making machine gun or hand grenade gestures. ;)

  23. Lennon Lennon 16 February 2012

    @ Siobhan: I think I’m in over my head now.

    The closest example I can think of is a character by the name of Jodah from the “Ice Age” trilogy based on the card game “Magic: The Gathering”. Basically, he’s an extremely powerful wizard who has succeeded in becoming immortal, but every 100 years or so he has to purge his mind of any emotional memories in order to retain his sanity.

    While the ability to live forever or (at the very least) for several lifetimes is appealing, having to deal with the inevitable loss that comes with such an existence would be extremely overwhelming. This was also demonstrated to a somewhat lesser extent in the film “Highlander II” when the the lead character states that he still loves his first wife who had been dead for the better part of 500 years.

    I must admit that I only ever watched that movie because Michael Ironside was hilarious as the lead character’s nemesis – superficiality at its best I suppose. But now I seem to have a better perspective of the story. :D

    My life as a meatbag is finite. I don’t expect there to be more to my existence. But as I simply do not know, I will quite readily accept this until I do kick the bucket. I suppose it’s the only way to really know.

  24. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 16 February 2012

    @ Lennon – Schopenhauer in his masterwork The World as Will and Representation explained that since the world can only be Representation – it is there only because we are ‘knowing subjects’ – there was no need to fear death and no point in pondering it. The fear of death and its mystery arises from the disagreeable idea that everything continues to go on without us. But things will not. The ‘represented’ world ends when we end.

    Some find that idea persuasive.

  25. Lennon Lennon 16 February 2012

    @ Paul: But does that not nullify everyone else’s existence? It seems to be a very absolutist(?) way of thinking as if to say “I’m dead, therefore the world ends with me.”

    I can understand this from the viewpoint of not being able to imagine life before and after my arrival / departure, but to simply dismiss the prior and / or continued existence of others because I’m worm food strikes me as arrogant.

  26. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 16 February 2012

    @ Lennon – It is not absolutist but individualist. The other knowing subjects will of course continue and so will the world for them.

    Siobhan (for one) has worried here before about ‘her’ surcease. Even if there is a great Universal Consciousness into which ‘she’ and all of us are subsumed, Siobhan along with the rest of us will no longer exist when that time arrives..

    But,as I say, it’s all a matter of personal faith.

  27. Siobhan Siobhan 16 February 2012

    @ Lennon

    Agreed: uncertainty is all we’ve got. At least it’s honest and doesn’t fudge the question from any perspective. Not familiar with the game or the film you mention but thanks for including them and broadening my horizons.

  28. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 17 February 2012

    Bert – With all respect to Nietzsche’s view, the truth is the individual stepped out of the Chorus and took, literally and metaphorically, centre stage in the theatre and drama of life. The individual could only journey on further and further forever after that, because once a spirit’s out, as we all know, you can never put the darn thing back in the bottle.

    I believe a hankering for a lost Eden, where everything was perfect, or healthier, or better, is one of the most powerful, not to mention most deceptive, emotions all of us individuals now experience.

    On a lighter note, poor old tormented Woody Allen puts it his individual way in his current movie ‘Midnight in Paris’ and poor old tormented Nietzsche was only putting it in his.

  29. isabella vd Westhuizen isabella vd Westhuizen 17 February 2012

    The problem with modern philosophy is that it tends to ignore the solution. Philosophy texts and courses go like this. Chapter 1 the Ancient Greeks. Chapter 2 Descartes. The intereving 1500 years is ignored as you Bert are in danger of doing now. If you read a bit more of Abelard and Duns Scotus never mind teh Angeli Doctor Himself we would all be better off.

  30. The Village Idiot The Village Idiot 17 February 2012

    Paul, the problem with that view is that everyone thinks they have stepped out the chorus. Most individuals live exactly the same life, with only a few idiosyncrasies constituting some “difference.” Naturally, the irony of everyone believing he / she is an individual should not be lost on anyone.

    It is ideology. Powerful, but just an ideology – and our culture is riddled with strawmen to create “an individual”, even if it is by dint of rejection of the unindividuated (“look at me! I am individual, because I am not a goth / vamp / skater / rocker / you name it”). Such strawmen, by definition, do not affirm life.

    The past can only be romanticised if one experiences betrayal in the present.

  31. Lennon Lennon 17 February 2012

    @ Paul: I don’t mind waiting to find out though. :)

    @ Siobhan: Glad to hear it. :)

  32. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 17 February 2012

    The Village Idiot – The past is romanticised because one experiences ‘betrayal’ in the present is the theme of Allen’s movie – fairly close to his exact words actually.

    Another way of looking at it is that we idealise the past because the past is the only thing in our lives that does not change.

  33. Robard Robard 17 February 2012

    @Paul Barrett – Nietzsche also pointed out that there is a certain depth to shallowness. An obsession with so-called substance is all too frequently the mark of the intellectual snob and thus, paradoxically, Apollonian in origin. When I went to see the movie Mamma Mia! with my wife, a huge Abba fan, I was not primed to be sceptical because I hadn’t read any of the reviews. I am ashamed to acknowledge that I was sobbing like a girl a few minutes into the movie, having literally been surprised with the sheer joy of a chorus revelling in unison with their emotions. Of course, on critical reflection the movie is terribly shallow, but perhaps the higher mind has to sometimes concede to the emotions in order to experience Dionysian unity. Fundamentally, emotions cannot be understood, only lived.

  34. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 18 February 2012

    @ The Village Idiot – With respect to your other point – that it is ‘ideology’ – the question is: Is it? That individualism/capitalism/rationalism/science are ideology is the proposition of the side that sees the world in other terms and favours different values. However long it is argued, there cannot be any satisfactory reason to accept one analysis over another. Post structuralism uses, as Bert justifiably points out, some of the most subtle reasoning you could encounter to point up the limitations of reason. Our stern marxist-leninist, Isabella, urges Bert to read Duns Scotus. If these are not paradoxes, there is no such thing as a paradox. And no such thing as a mystery.

    Is it not patronising and elitist, if not absurd, to say that most of us live exactly the same life? (‘life’, note, not ‘lives’). Apart from sharing surface things like Coke, cell phones, motor cars and banks, I doubt altogether one life and any other are exactly the same, let alone identical. The surface things that tend to some conformity of behaviour, and even thought, do not shape the entirety of our interior life, which is uniquely everyone’s own.

    The fact is – unless we are prepared to take someone else’s word on the subject – those who think they have stepped out from the chorus have stepped out from the chorus.

  35. The Village Idiot The Village Idiot 18 February 2012

    Paul I did not use ideology in the narrow sense, but in the broader sense, as societal glue that binds the members together. In our time it is the ideology of individuality amongst others, in feudal times various religious doctrines (and debates!) served a similar function. Ideology certainly has a basis in the material realities of society, and hence cannot be seen as the whole truth.

    Ideological critique of ideology is not an affirmation of life. At most such a critique can show us that even though we think we apply the master’s morality to ourselves, it is in fact nothing more but slave morality. The predicament that Nietzsche wanted to escape.

    How is it absurd to claim that almost everyone lives the same life? Idiosyncratic differences are just that. Whether you are Black or White, male or female, drive a BMW or a Fiat does nothing to challenge the hegemony of the ruling ideology. For society’s functioning, the only thing that matters is that you do not actively rebel against it (and this explains how various social concerns can easily be co-opted, as long as they do not challenge the basic foundations of the ruling ideology. See for instance the marketing of “green” products).
    Some of us can see that, but no means does that make anyone free from it. It may even lead to even more myopic views (and this applies to the elite just as well as activists campaigning for change).

    Are you proposing a solipsist understanding of individuality?

  36. Matoro Matoro 19 February 2012

    Bert, old J.J. Degenaar had similar mind provoking essays – pity at that time there was no electronic media to pull in a larger discussion group. Are we not also in a formalistic bound in South Africa with the spirit of Ubuntu contra the spirit of Individualistic Reason? A sort of clash Clash of Civilizations or Cultures?

  37. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 19 February 2012

    @ The Village Idiot – What I am suggesting is that a human being is at once a social and individual animal and the claim that individuality is contrived is generally politically motivated and, even if it is not, needs carefully thinking about rather than knee-jerk acceptance.

    That different groupings and societies produce different-thinking individuals is perfectly clear, but there is no reason to suppose any human being lacks a sense of self.

    That is the mystery. Personally I cannot imagine how it will ever be solved.

  38. The Village Idiot The Village Idiot 20 February 2012


    A baby discovers that there is a world out there beyond its immediate sensations and sometimes in opposition to it (the child). After all it has to undertake certain actions to signify it is hungry, or wants attention (I could go in more detail here but that is hardly the point). If that constitutes individuality (as it does by your definition), all of us excepting the newborn are individuals.

    If you put the bar at having original creative thought or giving expression to our creative impulses, far fewer would qualify. Whether that is thought or something like embroidery. Most often such creative impulses are reduced to mere pastimes. Someone’s got to bring in the bacon.

    When you look at your pants, you may well look at an expression of a young girl’s creativity denied by circumstances of birth. An expression of a miserable life. A life that is foisted on her, on which Western society depends to keep itself from collapsing.

    Dionysian revelry and worshiping of false gods are common. Someone already mentioned Ray McCauley. That people believe in a certain ideology does not mean all ideologies are of equal value. Some are more harmful than others. Whilst social acceptance of an ideology is not necessarily a bad thing, a lack of critical reflection on it is.

    Your claim “that criticism of individuality may be politically motivated”, may also be a politically motivated claim. Acceptance and rejection of ideology are both political acts.

  39. Paul Barrett Paul Barrett 20 February 2012

    @Robard: You (and Nietzsche) make a good point. I agree.

    I also believe that substance is to an extent a subjective personal interpretation. This is not to say that something such as Mama Mia (which I also enjoyed) could necessarily be regarded as having substance, but to take Bert’s example of Wild At Heart: I am a fan of David Lynch, but I have little love for that film. I find it shallow and pointless. Contrast this with how I feel about Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, which I think are substantial works.

    I can’t argue that my opinion is definitive. Some people *will* argue that only what they find substantial is really substantial. This is patently false, because they don’t all agree.

  40. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 20 February 2012

    @ The Village Idiot – ‘Life’ is foisted on all of us, of course; and the great majority take the world as we find it and work within its boundaries for want of any practical alternative. A very few drop out of society one way or another and always have and will. I cannot see how one group can be said to be exercising free will and the other not. Who is umpire?

    At least two further problems arise from schemes to rescue the situtation: first, efforts to show the past was superior romanticise it and no convincing example exists of a superior society; second, it is impossible to explain why some people should be privileged to know of an untested way to live that would be better – let alone be able to impose it on the rest. What are their credentials to do so? Who is to say the proposed alternative is better except those promoting it?

    Indeed, I agree this whole debate has become political, not philosopihcal. The criticism of individuality is, as I said, generally (ie not always) politically motivated and those who believe in a harmonious collective society will argue the opposite view is ideological.

    There we run into into another paradox. Only each of us allegedly enslaved individuals can decide which side to take.

  41. Bert Bert 20 February 2012

    Richard and Paul Barrett – Those are excellent comments, although I tend to disagree with you about just how widespread superficiality really is among people, Paul. You are probably right about the disinclination on the part of many people to look deeper, or further – and in your words, this is a symptom of superficiality. I also agree that the distinction has always existed. But I am convinced that, in previous times, even ‘ordinary people’ – who did not have access to things like Facebook, e.g. – were inclined, by dint of their culture, to reflect more on life than is the case today. At least the material for their reflections entailed ‘consequential’ religious beliefs, enmeshed with a whole panoply of myths and legends. Just think of the place occupied by celebrity culture in the pop culture of today – I read not too long ago that, when a survey was conducted among teenage girls in Britain concerning their (career and other) aspirations, their responses included statements such as: ‘I want to have Britney’s boobs” and ‘Give me J’Lo’s bum’!
    Robard – the experience you had with Mamma Mia was probably not that different from what Nietzsche had in mind with Dionysian festivals’ shattering individuality in favour of ‘fusing’/’bonding’ with others.
    Matoro – Degenaar’s teaching and writing were truly wonderful; would that the internet existed for him, indeed.
    Paul Whelan – Agreed about the individual ‘stepping out of the chorus’ – that is what Nietzsche…

  42. Sammie Aurelio Sammie Aurelio 21 April 2012

    This discussion seems off base to me. As a consultant to surgical practices, I can tell you that the jobs are therethe talent isn’t. Applicants computer skills are woefully deficient in an EMR/EHr era. Keying speeds are patheticknowledge of Microsoft Word is basic, at best. A healthcare IT start up in the Bay Area has jobsgood jobsno applicants responding. I know, because I am an investor. I am speaking about business and administrative jobs. Regardless of the bill, practices are automating. Practices are consolidating making bigger investments in efficiencyMom and Pop practices are over and done.

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