By the Rivers of Babylon
Societies keep order. They have to.
For millennia, religion has been key to achieving this. Religions may aspire to make men free and able to live a full life but they also embody a set of rules designed to keep chaos at bay. A Superego whose mission is to keep an Id in check.
This has been particularly clear in the religious regulation of procreation and family life. While there have been challenges from romantic love, and eroticism was sometimes incorporated into religion, until very recently societal needs to contain the chaos eroticism might bring meant the institution of marriage triumphed over individual choice. To stray was to sin.
We couldn’t have catholic girls falling in love with protestant boys, sunni girls with shia men, or chinese women with anyone from outside the group – although Judaism solved this slightly by having identity pass down through mothers.
The French Revolution was close to the first Revolution. Almost all prior events had been rebellions where one nation or tribe rebelled against the rule of another or for instance a protestant people had rebelled against a catholic overlord. In Paris in 1789, pretty well for the first time, a people rose up against their own.
Within the Revolution, there was an earthquake – the Reign of Terror – when the liquefaction that lies beneath burst through the veneer of civilization. The rulers became intensely scared about the people and located crime and criminality within the rabble. What we did was sophisticated what they did was wrong.
The Marquis de Sade was one of the symbols of the upheaval. He had been imprisoned in the Bastille and later in an asylum for his erotic works, before being liberated and becoming a member of the Assembly. Nevertheless his works were burnt on his death and it was to take almost two centuries for Sade to be tamed and admitted into the canon of literature.
With the re-imposition of civilization in the years after the Revolution, the clash between the new bourgeois propriety and eroticism grew particularly acute. Madame Bovary chafed within the confines of bourgeois life in provincial France, just as April Wheeler did in Revolutionary Road a century later.
In between Emma Bovary and April Wheeler, in 1869, Leopold von Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs gave the purest of statements of the revolutionary potential of eroticism. The relations between the sexes it said could never be right until she has the same education, status and power as he.
Tumescent eroticism fueled the suffragette movement but to the surprise of early feminists women’s growing awareness of themselves as a political force was not enough to stop the Great War. Women seemed no more capable than the working class of acting as a coherent force.
April Wheeler died just before eroticism was tamed good and proper. In the 1960s love became free thanks to oral contraceptives. It became part of a new consumer culture. Between shopping and sex we could all consume almost without consequence it seemed until AIDs darkened the horizon in the 1980s.
Those who sought to capture our attention with the need for personal and social reform, from Protestant Evangelists and the Catholic Church on the right to Marxists on the left, despaired. With so much to consume, where would the impetus to reform come from? Who even had time for revolution? The Internet has probably put paid completely to the prospects of a Revolution driven by eroticism.
In 1917, in the midst of the Great War, the year of the Russian Revolution, jazz was born. It had been preceded, John the Baptist like, by ragtime, which the social establishment had united in labeling degenerate.
For centuries, perhaps millennia, music had managed to unite thoughts of order and aspirations toward freedom. From Bach through to the late nineteenth century, a great flourishing of music had underpinned revolutions – best caught perhaps in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But within music the forces of order began to constrain the emotional possibilities and by the end of the nineteenth century classical composers increasingly sought a new language, experimenting with atonality and other deviations from normality, almost like the Marquis de Sade, to force people to confront things rather than go to sleep. But they largely lost their audience in the process.
As this experiment was failing, Jazz took the rules and form of classical music and subverted them. Every individual player was given the liberty to improvise within a common framework. No two performances would ever be the same. Order in music was dissolving and a new freer form was apparently being born. Marxists at least celebrated its emergence.
Through to the 1950s in the West, jazz was synonymous with freedom. It was still the music of freedom through to 1980 in Eastern Europe. Once endorsed by thinkers from both Left and Right as the music of emancipation, jazz performers today still link what they are doing to freedom. But it had lost its edge in the West by 1960, descending into intellectually sophisticated improvisation not much more accessible that the experiments of classic music on the one hand or into rock and pop on the other, with the latter being the new conformity.
And by this time, the Revolutionary potential of American democracy seemed spent. It was time for a March on Washington.
In the 1960s, Revolution was again in the air. But by this point, jazz and eroticism had lost their revolutionary edge. They were replaced by mental illness as the New Black.
Two hundred years previously, in the 1760s, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had made the first links between social alienation and mental alienation. Where previously civilization had been seen as the beautiful, Rousseau made the case that we were born free and the natural was where beauty lay. Social conventions had alienated us from our true selves. Beauty might lie in wilderness.
At this point, words collided. The raving and delirious states that led civilization to figure some of those who were most affected should be incarcerated for their own good was at the time of the Revolution referred to as mental alienation with the doctors who would treat the alienated called alienists.
In the midst of the Reign of Terror Philippe Pinel, otherwise a fan of Rousseau’s, was faced with a Jacobin party fresh from liberating the prisoners from jails entering the asylum in search of alienated patients whom, a la Rousseau, they assumed were only there because they did not fit into social norms. Finding a patient who seemed to fit the bill, they liberated him – only to bring him back a few days later conceding that he really had something wrong with him.
Pinel went on to create the disease model of mental illness according to which mental illness, whatever it was, was not a form of protest.
There things stayed for over a century and half until the Revolutions of 1968. All of a sudden, mental disorders became a prism for a Revolution against colonization. Middle class College students protested their colonization by their parents. Women sought freedom from male colonization. Everyone became increasingly aware of ever more insidious effects of colonization by white middle aged middle class men.
The mentally ill were the ultimate symbol of this colonization. Psychosis was a political rather than a medical state. It was what happened if you didn’t protest. Ronnie Laing and Thomas Szasz toured campuses with this political message, which led to protests erupting on the streets from Tokyo, through Paris to Chicago.
But mental illness was all too tamable. Notwithstanding Mad Pride, being mental is now the ultimate symbol of conformity. Rather than threatening anyone, women show they are coping by letting everyone know they are taking an antidepressant. Puerperal depression, which had been seen as a protest against a change of role or emerging awareness that the man you were living with was not someone you wanted to live the rest of your life with, has become an endocrine disturbance.
Now that we are all mentally ill, there is nothing subversive or revolutionary about the idea that we are becoming unhinged. We no longer think we don’t need to adjust our sets, there is something wrong with reality. We now need society and the order it imposes not to solve our problem but to guarantee a continuing supply of the little objects of desire we use to keep our (or society’s) inner demons in their proper place.
Where might change come from in this modern world?
To be continued.