Form and Malignant Form
The Metaphorically Correct Artist and other Romanticist Mutations

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Every type of human activity has a malignant equivalent.

The pursuit of happiness, the accumulation of wealth, the exercise of power, the love of one's self are all tools in the struggle to survive and, as such, are commendable. They do, however, have malignant counterparts: pursuing pleasures (hedonism), greed and avarice as manifested in criminal activities, murderous authoritarian regimes and narcissism.

What sets the malignant versions apart from the benign ones?

Phenomenologically, they are difficult to tell apart. In which way is a criminal distinct from a business tycoon? Many will say that there is no distinction indeed. Still society treats the two differently and has set up separate social institution to accommodate these two human types and their activities.

Is it merely a matter of ethical or philosophical judgement? I think not.

The difference seems to lie in the context. Granted, the criminal and the businessman both have the same motivation (at times, obsession): to make money. Sometimes they both employ the same techniques and adopt the same venues of action. But in which social, moral, philosophical, ethical, historical and biographical contexts do they operate?

A closer examination of their exploits will expose the unbridgeable gap between them. The criminal acts only in the pursuit of money. He has no other considerations, thoughts, motives and emotions, no temporal horizon, no ulterior or external aims, no incorporation of other humans or social institutions in his deliberations. The reverse is true for the businessman. The latter is aware of the fact that he is part of a larger fabric, that he has to obey the law, that some things are not permissible, that sometimes he has to lose sight of moneymaking for the sake of higher values, institutions, or the future. In short: the criminal is a solipsist - the businessman, an integrated person. The criminal one track minded - the businessman is aware of the existence of others and of their needs and demands. The criminal has no context - the businessman does.

Whenever a human activity, a human institution, or a human thought is refined, purified, reduced to its bare minimum - malignancy ensues. Leukaemia is characterized by the concentration of the bone marrow upon the production of only one category of blood cells (the white ones) while abandoning the production of others. Malignancy is reductionist: do one thing, do it best, do it more and most, compulsively pursue one course of action, one idea, never mind the costs. Actually, no costs can exist - because the very existence of a context is ignored. Costs are brought on by conflict and conflict entails the existence of at least two parties. The criminal, for instance, pays none because he does not include in his weltbild the Other. The dictator doesn't suffer because suffering is brought on by recognizing the other. The malignant forms are sui generis, they are dang am sich, they are categorical, they do not depend on the outside for their existence.

Put differently: the malignant forms are functional but meaningless.

Let us use an illustration to understand this dichotomy:

In France there is a man who made it his life's mission to spit the furthest a human has ever spat. This way he will make it into the Guinness Book of Records (GBR). After decades of training, he succeeded to spit to the longest distance a man has ever spat and was included in the GBR under miscellany.

The following can be said about this man with a high degree of certainty:

a. The Frenchman had a purposeful life in the sense that his life had a well-delineated, narrowly focused, and achievable target, which permeated his entire life and defined them.

b. He was a successful man in that he fulfilled his main ambition in life to the fullest. We can rephrase this sentence by saying that he functioned well.

c. He probably was a happy, content and satisfied man as far as his main theme in life is concerned.

d. He achieved significant outside recognition and affirmation of his achievements.

e. This recognition and affirmation is not limited in time and place.

In other words, he became "part of history".

But how many of us would say that he led a meaningful life? How many would be willing to attribute meaning to his spitting efforts? Not many. His life would look to most of us ridiculous and bereft of meaning.

This judgement is facilitated by comparing his actual history with his potential or possible history. In other words, we derive the sense of meaninglessness partly from comparing his spitting career with what he could have done and achieved had he invested the same time and efforts differently.

He could have raised children, for instance. This is widely considered a more meaningful activity. But why? What makes child rearing more meaningful than distance spitting?

Nothing does but common agreement. No philosopher, scientist, or publicist can rigorously defend an argument in defence of a hierarchy of meaningfulness of human actions.

There are two reasons for this inability:

a. There is no connection between function (functioning, functionality) and meaning (meaninglessness, meaningfulness).

b. There are different interpretations of the word "Meaning" and, yet, people use them interchangeably, obscuring the dialogue.

People often confuse Meaning and Function. When asked what is the meaning of their life they answer, using function-laden phrases. They say: "This activity lends taste (=one interpretation of meaning) to my life", or: "My role in this world is this and, once finished, I will be able to rest in pace, to die". They attach different magnitudes of meaningfulness to various human activities.

Two things are evident:

a. That people use the word "Meaning" not in its philosophically rigorous form. What they mean is really the satisfaction, even the happiness that comes with successful functioning. They want to live on when flooded by these emotions. They confuse this motivation to live on with the meaning of life. Put differently, they confuse the "why" with the "what for". The philosophical assumption that life has a meaning is a teleological one. Life - regarded linearly as a "progress bar" - proceeds towards something, a final horizon, an aim. But people relate only to what "makes them tick", the pleasure that they derive from being more or less successful in what they set out to do.

b. Either the philosophers are wrong in that they do not distinguish among human activities (from the point of view of their meaningfulness) or people are wrong in that they do. This apparent conflict can be resolved by observing that people use an interpretation of the word "Meaning" different to the one adopted by the philosophers.

To reconcile these antithetical interpretations, it is best to consider three examples:

Assuming there were a religious man who established a new church of which only he was a member.

Would we have said that his life and actions are meaningful?

Probably not.

This seems to imply that quantity somehow bestows meaning. In other words, that meaning is an epiphenomenon. Another right conclusion would be that meaning depends on the context. In the absence of worshippers, even the best run, well-organized and worthy church might look meaningless. The worshippers - who are part of the church - also provide the context. This is unfamiliar territory. We are used to associate context with externality. We do not think that our organs provide us with context (unless we are afflicted by certain mental disturbances), for instance. The apparent contradiction is easily resolved: to provide context, the context provider must be either external to the context consumer - or with the inherent, independent capacity to be so.

The churchgoers do constitute the church - but they are not defined by it, they are external to it and they are not dependent on it. This outside look - whether in the form of the provision of context, or in the form of epiphenomenalism - is all-important. The meaning of a system cannot exist without it, indeed it is its derivative.

A second example only supports this approach:

Imagine a national hero without a nation, an actor without an audience and an author without (present or future) readers. Does their work have any meaning? Not really. The outside look again proves all-important.

There is an added caveat, an added dimension here: time. To deny a work of art any meaning, we must know with total assurance that it will never be seen by anyone. Since this is an impossibility (unless it is to be destroyed) - a work of art has undeniable, intrinsic meaning, a result of the mere potential to be seen by someone, sometime, somewhere. This potential single gaze is sufficient to endow the work of art with meaning.

To a large extent, the heroes of history, its main characters, are actors with a stage and audience larger than usual. The only difference might be that if their audience is not contemporaneous - their "art" undergoes a change in magnitude: it is either diminished or magnified, according to the historical circumstances.

The third example - originally brought up by Douglas Hofstadter in his magnificent opus "Godel, Escher, Bach - an Eternal Golden Braid" - is the genetic material DNA. Without the right "context" (amino acids) - it has no "meaning" (it does not lead to the production of proteins, the building blocks of the organism encoded in the DNA). To illustrate his point, he sends DNA on a trip to outer space, where aliens would find it impossible to decipher it (=to understand its meaning).

By now it would seem clear that for a human activity, institution or idea to be meaningful, a context would be needed. Whether we can say the same about things natural remains to be seen. Being humans, we would tend to attribute to ourselves a privileged status. As in classical quantum mechanics, the observer actively participates in the determination of the world. There would be no meaning if there were no intelligent observers - even if the requirement of context was satisfied.

In other words, not all contexts were created equal. A human observer is needed to determine the meaning, this is an unavoidable constraint. Meaning is the name that we give to the interaction between an entity (material or spiritual) and its context (material or spiritual). So, the human observer is forced to evaluate this interaction in order to judge the meaning. But humans are not identical copies, clones. They are liable to judge the same phenomena differently, dependent upon their vantage point. They are the product of their nature and nurture, the highly specific circumstances of their lives and their idiosyncrasies.

In an age of moral and ethical relativism, a universal hierarchy of contexts is not likely to go down well with the gurus of philosophy. But we are talking about the existence of hierarchies as numerous as the number of observers. This is a notion so intuitive, so embedded in human thinking and behaviour that to ignore it would amount to ignoring reality. People (=observers) have privileged systems of meaning. They constantly and consistently prefer certain contexts to others in the detection of meaning and its set of possible interpretations. This set would have been infinite were it not for these preferences. The context preferred arbitrarily excludes and disallows certain interpretations (and, therefore, certain meanings).

The benign form is, therefore, the acceptance of a plurality of contexts and of the resulting meanings.

The malignant form is to adopt (and, then, impose) a universal hierarchy of contexts with a Master Context which bestows meaning upon everything. Such malignant systems of thought are easily recognizable because they claim to be comprehensive, invariant and universal. In plain language, these thought systems pretend to explain everything, everywhere and in a way not dependent on specific circumstances. Religion is like that and so are most modern ideologies. Science tries to be different and sometimes succeeds. But humans are frail and frightened and they much prefer malignant systems of thinking because they give them the illusion of gaining absolute power through absolute, immutable knowledge.

Two contexts seem to compete for the title of Master Context in human history, the contexts which endow all meanings, permeate all aspects of reality, are universal, invariant, define truth values and solve all moral dilemmas: the Ratio and the Affect (emotions).

We live in an age that despite its self-perception as rational is defined and influenced by the emotional Master Context. This is called Romanticism - the malignant form of "being tuned" to one's emotions.

Romanticism is the assertion that all human activities are founded on emotions or emotionally directed.

This relatively novel approach (in historical terms) has permeated human activities as diverse as politics, the formation of families and art.

Families were once constructed on purely totalitarian bases. It was a transaction, really, involving considerations both financial and genetic. This was substituted (during the 18th century) by love as the main motivation and foundation. Inevitably, this led to the disintegration and to the metamorphosis of the family. To establish a sturdy social institution on such a fickle basis was an experiment doomed to failure.

Romanticism infiltrated the body politic as well. All major political ideologies and movements of the 20th century had romanticist roots, Nazism more than others. Communism touted the ideals of equality and justice - while Nazism was a quasi-mythological interpretation of history. Still, both were highly romantic movements. Politicians were - and to a lesser degree today (see the case of Prince Diana), are - expected to be extraordinary in their personal lives or in their personality traits. Biographies are recast by image and public relations experts to fit this mould. Hitler was, arguably, the most romantic of all leaders, closely followed by other dictators and authoritarian figures. It is a cliché to say that we use politicians to re-enact our relationships with our parents. Politicians are patrician (or merely father) figures. But the Romanticist virus drove this transference mechanism into new troughs of infantilism. In politicians we want to see not the wise, level headed ideal father - but our actual parents: capriciously unexpected, overwhelming, powerful, unjust, protecting and awe-inspiring. This is the romanticist view of leadership: anti-Webberian, anti bureaucratic, chaotic. And this set of predilections, later transformed to social dictates, had a profound effect on the history of the 20th century.

Romanticism manifested itself in art through the concept of Inspiration. An artist had to have it in order to create. This led to a conceptual divorce between art and artisanship. As late as the 18th century, there was no difference between these two classes of creative people, the artists and the artisans. Artists accepted orders of commercial nature including delivery dates, prices, etc. His art was a product, almost a commodity and was treated as such by others (examples: Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Goya, Rembrandt and thousands of artists of similar or lesser stature). The attitude was completely businesslike, creativity was mobilized in the service of the marketplace. Granted, artists used conventions - more or less rigid, depending on the period - to express emotions. They were trading emotional expressions where others were trading spices, or engineering skills. But they all were trading and were proud of their artisanship. Their personal lives were subject to gossip, condemnation or admiration but were not considered to be a precondition, an absolutely essential backdrop.

The romanticist view of the artist painted him (or - more and more - her) into a corner. His life and art became inextricable. Artists were expected to transmute and transubstantiate their lives as well as the physical materials that they were dealing with. Living (the kind of life, which is the subject of legends or fables) became an art form, at times predominantly so. It is interesting to note the prevalence of romanticist ideas in this context: weltschmerz, passion, self destruction were considered fit for the artist. A "boring" artist would never sell as much as a "romantically-correct" one. Van Gogh, Kafka and James Dean epitomize this trend: they all died young, lived in misery, suffered self-inflicted pains and ultimate destruction or annihilation. To paraphrase Sontag, their lives became metaphors and they all suffered from the metaphorically correct physical and mental illnesses. Kafka developed tuberculosis (the punishment as part of an on going trial), Van Gogh was mentally sick, James Dean died appropriately in an accident. In an age of social anomies, we tend to appreciate and rate highly the anomalous. Munch and Nietzsche will always be preferable to more ordinary (but perhaps equally as creative) people.

Today there is an anti-romantic backlash (divorce, the disintegration of the romantic nation-state, the death of ideologies, the commercialization and popularization of art). But this counter-revolution tackles the external, less substantial facets of Romanticism. Romanticism continues to thrive in the flourishing of mysticism, of ethnicity and of celebrity worship. It seems that Romanticism has changed vessels but not its cargo.

We are afraid to face the fact that life is meaningless unless WE observe it, unless WE put it in context, unless WE interpret it. We feel burdened by this realization, afraid of making the wrong moves, using the wrong contexts, making the wrong interpretations. We understand that there is no constant, unchanged, everlasting meaning to life, and that it all really depends upon us. We denigrate this kind of meaning. A meaning that is derived by humans from human contexts and experiences is bound to be a very poor approximation to the TRUE meaning. It is bound to be asymptotic to the Grand Design. It might well be - but this is all we have got and without it our lives will indeed prove meaningless.

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