Friday, November 20, 2009

The Triumph of Dullness

Updated October 18, 2021

Read the following poem, written in the early eighteenth century by English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744):

In vain, in vain,—the all-composing Hour
Resistless falls: the Muse obeys the Pow'r.
She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy's gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea's strain,
The sick'ning stars fade off th' ethereal plain;
As Argus' eyes by Hermes' wand oppressed,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is night.
See sulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
Mountains of Casuistry heap'd o'er her head!
Philosophy, that leaned on Heav'n before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defense,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor'd;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries all.

This poem, entitled "The Triumph of Dulness [sic]," and the larger work to which it belongs, The Dunciad, have been referred to as a "mock apocalypse." They describe the end of the world in a humorous way. The Dunciad is a complex work, containing many layers of biblical, Greco-Roman, and eighteenth century British political and cultural allusions.

To help the contemporary reader understand the "Triumph of Dulness" poem, I'll explain some of the allusions. The "sable throne" symbolizes night and chaos. Medea was a sorceress in Seneca's Latin tragedy, who summoned monsters outlined in heavenly constellations as she prepared to murder her children. Why did she murder her children? She did it in revenge of their father's infidelity. Medea finally escaped into the heavens in a chariot drawn by dragons, after which her husband concluded that there were no gods.

Argus had eyes over all his body, which slept in rotation to keep a constant watch. He was set by jealous Hera to keep watch on Io (Zeus's mistress) to prevent her husband Zeus's infidelity. Hermes was able to put out all Argus's eyes at once, allowing Zeus to fool around unwatched. Hermes' putting out all Argus's eyes is symbolic of the lack of perception and vision in society.

Casuistry (deceptive argument) is heaped over the head of Truth, forcing Truth to flee to an old cavern. Philosophy has abandoned heaven (God—the first cause) and shrinks to its second cause (mechanical necessity, or causation). By doing this, philosophy disappears. "Physic" (natural sciences) and "Metaphysic" (philosophy) are dependent on each other, leading each to circular reasoning. "See Mystery to Mathematics fly" refers to the vain attempts to "prove" the mysteries of religion by mathematical reasoning. They (truth, religion, philosophy, natural science, and math) die. Religion blushes, veils her sacred fires, and morality goes down the drain (implying that morality is grounded upon religion). The final lines refer to an apocalyptic ending of the world, brought down by chaos and anarchy.

Let's interpret "The Triumph of Dulness" in the context of our present age. Has dullness triumphed in our time? In Pope's words, "Art after Art goes out, and all is night", and "Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires." Also, "Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!" There is neither art nor wit in contemporary culture. If you go to a movie, turn on the TV, go to an art gallery, concert hall, or playhouse to watch and/or hear anything new, stupidity, incompetence, and mediocrity reign. Creative achievement, the "human spark," the "glimpse divine," exemplified in history by Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Beethoven, is nowhere to be found. This makes for a dull society.

For the last fifty years, there has been very little major individual creative achievement. It's true that every year there are new products and inventions, new scientific discoveries, and new technologies (e.g. cloning, medical advances, new computer technologies, new software, new books, new music, etc.). The problem is that these advances have been made by relatively minor, unknown people or groups of people. None of these people compare to the giants of the Western art and science tradition. If they did compare, then they would be as famous or more famous than these giants.

Is it a public relations problem? It's true that the media mainly reports bad things. Maybe someone is a genius, but the media only wants to report on the latest murder-suicide. The media is a problem, but it's unlikely that a genius would go unnoticed in today's age of individual glorification and celebrity. Actors, sports stars, popular musicians, and politicians certainly go noticed. Einstein today would likely be more famous and in the media spotlight than he was in his time.

Why this dearth of creative genius? Consider this quote: "Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings." C. Archie Danielson's pithy metaphor compares intelligence to a bird's ability to fly. Intelligence, like wings on a bird, can cause the individual to soar. Intelligence can also help uplift society by means of the products of intelligence.

Bird without wings cannot fly. The potential for flight is present in the bird's genetics, but without wings it cannot actualize this potential. Intelligence without ambition has the genetic potential to do constructive things, but the person cannot do it. The bright person sits on his or her ass and watches TV or plays video games.

A better quote would be: "Creativity without ambition is like a bird without wings." Creativity is not the same as intelligence. Creativity is coming up with new, original ideas, works of art, or inventions. From the point of view of society, creativity is much more important than what intelligence alone can do. Creative geniuses are intelligent, but have something more than intelligence (i.e. high IQ scores alone cannot predict creative achievement—or else everyone in Mensa would be a creative genius). Intelligence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for genius.

There is certainly a lack of ambition among potential creative geniuses. These birds are not growing the wings that they need to fly. Why don't they have ambition? There are environmental factors in modern society that have robbed virtually every potential genius of any ambition. One of these factors may be the lack of structure, standards, and morality in contemporary society, a descent to Hobbes “state of nature.” This condition, known as “hyperindividualism,” i.e. every man out for himself, undercuts the prestige and altruism motivations that induced creative people to achieve in the past. Both prestige and altruism are important motivators because creative work in the arts and sciences is usually not financially rewarding. Another related factor is that our information-age economy gives bright people so many more opportunities for high-paying careers than it did in the past. Most of these careers (e.g. business, law, medicine, and technology) don’t provide the opportunity for creative achievement in the arts and sciences.

Another environmental factor is widespread availability of psychotropic drugs (both legal and illegal) that rob people of their creative ambition (and other things). Marijuana reduces motivation in some people. The stimulant drugs like amphetamine and cocaine target the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is important to motivation. Antidepressant, mood stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs have helped keep people with depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia out of the hospital, but their anti-motivational and emotional blunting side effects have prevented these people from achieving anything. With a few exceptions, prior to the 20th century potentially creative people had only alcohol as a means to escape from reality.

Another reason is that it's hard to start from scratch. Other geniuses were part of artistic and scientific movements that were prominent in their time. Michelangelo was a product of the High Renaissance; Newton was a product of the scientific revolution. Today, there are no movements; there's nil. Modernism and Postmodernism are dead. They've contributed nothing. There isn't anything more to rebel against—all literary, artistic, and moral standards are gone. There are no role models, no heroes, and no mentors that can inspire creative people to achieve. This shows the supreme importance of culture and environment to creative achievement. There wasn't much creative achievement in the Dark Ages, even though there were certainly some people who had the potential. It's hard to believe that with today's wealth, living standards, and technology that we're not doing much better than the Dark Ages.

To get a better understanding of why there is no creative genius, it's important to recognize when the problem began. Although it's been glaringly evident since at least the 1960's, the problem began a century before that, according to Charles Murray. In his book entitled Human Accomplishment, Murray dates the problem from sometime in the 19th century. His reasoning is that although there was a great deal of accomplishment in the late 19th and early 20th century, there should have been more, based on the fact that more people were educated and had more opportunities to create than ever before. If we accept his premise, then the explanations mentioned above don't apply, because they refer to environmental factors that came into existence after 1900.

Another perspective is from Eugen Weber, in one of the programs from his PBS series The Western Tradition. This program, entitled “Fin de Si├Ęcle,” used the best of times/worst of times theme to portray life and culture at the turn of the 20th century. On the one hand, it was the best of times for almost everyone. Inventions such as the bicycle, the automobile, the airplane, electric power, the railroad, and the steamboat had transformed or would soon transform the lives of everyone, including the common people. Public education had for the first time provided literacy for the majority of people in the developed world. Economic progress had allowed more leisure time for working people than ever before, and the consumer economy and transportation revolution gave these people more things to do with their leisure time than ever before.

On the other hand, for the sensitive, creative types, it was the worst of times. As a symbol of this, Weber showed Munch’s painting “The Scream.”

Something in the environment was driving creative people to near-madness, leading them to abandon all traditional notions of beauty, logic, coherence, and harmony, which we know today as the avant-garde/modernist movement. The fact that the basic themes of modernism still dominate the arts today, a century later, indicates that the root causes haven’t changed. Artists and other sensitive people are still screaming.

My human magnetoreception hypothesis explains why creative people had such a difficult time with modern life. Let’s assume that potentially creative people are also potentially mentally ill people. The link between creativity and madness is generally accepted by researchers who study creativity. Read Eysenck’s Genius or Simonton’s Origins of Genius for corroboration. This link is strongest for nonconformist artists and scientists. There are three aspects of modernity that have hammered people with the genetic predisposition for either creativity or mental illness.
  1. Some mentally ill people are highly sensitive to artificial magnetic fields when sleeping and/or waking. The industrial, electromagnetic/electronic, and computer revolutions have exposed us to all kinds of artificial magnetic fields. The innerspring mattress, which first became widely used in the 1930’s, exposes sleepers to artificial magnetic fields (from the steel springs). Other harmful magnetic fields are from steel headboards and bed frames, steel building structure, and various electrical and electronic appliances. In recent decades, with the introduction of wireless networks and devices, we’ve become more and more exposed to these fields. Some mentally ill people have become psychologically damaged by the sleep disruption caused by artificial magnetic fields. Others have been harmed from electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
  2. Some mentally ill people are highly sensitive to the geomagnetic field differences between different places on the Earth. The transportation revolution that began in the nineteenth century with the invention and widespread use of the steamboat and the railroad, and accelerated in the twentieth century with the invention of the automobile and airplane, has exposed people to vastly different geomagnetic field properties than that in which they grew up. Our bodies didn’t evolve with the ability to adapt to these differences. Some mentally ill people have become psychologically damaged by moving from one city or country to another.
  3. Some mentally ill people are highly sensitive to differences in circadian rhythm, the internal daily rhythm that is influenced by sleep/wake time. The industrial revolution began the move toward artificial time and away from the natural/sun clock that people had always used in centuries past. The rise of shift work and the introduction of daylight savings time in the twentieth century further moved us away from natural time. Some mentally ill people have become psychologically damaged by their circadian rhythms being out-of-sync with the solar day.
All three factors began to influence mentally ill people in the nineteenth century, then accelerated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Put another way, our technology is destroying our civilization by psychologically damaging a group of people who in previous eras might have become creative geniuses, but now are not achieving anything.

A civilization cannot thrive without creative achievement. There are always problems that require creative solutions. For example, contemporary America is drowning in debt, the war on drugs has been lost, we’re threatened by terrorism, our schools are failing us, prisons are the only high-growth industry, we need a vaccine for AIDS, and we need to come up with green alternatives to oil and the internal combustion engine. Our two political parties are so far apart on most issues that the federal government is gridlocked, unable to pass needed reforms. While there are some good ideas floating around, very few of them get implemented. We need creative geniuses to not only come up with solutions, but figure out how to get these solutions put into practice. Dullness pervades all our political/artistic/scientific life and intellectual discourse. At least during the Great Depression, people could go to Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies as a healthy temporary escape. Today, all we have to offer are reality TV shows and rap music. Until we address the connection between our own technology and creativity/mental illness, i.e. until we begin researching human magnetoreception, dullness will be triumphant.

1 comment:

  1. I love heroic couplets. If I remember right, one of the things that Pope was complaining about in The Dunciade was the admixture between the high and the low, the merging of the sacred and the profane. We have quite a bit of that today. Indeed, a synthesis between the two is considered healthy.

    One of the things that leaves people screaming, I think, is that we have become so successful in mastering our environment, so successful in abstracting out the minutiaea of our physical world and manipulating them, but our bodies and consciousness haven't evolved as fast as our problem solving skills. We're still apes, but we now possess thermonuclear weapons. This leaves anyone with a lick of sense crawling out his skin.