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

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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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, or 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 separates the malignant versions 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. Still, society treats the two differently and has set up separate social institutions to accommodate these two human types and their activities.

Is it merely a matter of ethical or philosophical judgment? 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 exposes 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, and he does not incorporate other people or social institutions in his deliberations.

The reverse applies to the businessman. He is aware of the fact that he is part of a larger social 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, socially integrated. The criminal is 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 (he is a "political animal").

Whenever a human activity, a human institution, or a human thought is refined, purified, reduced to its bare minimum, malignancy ensues. Leukemia is characterized by the exclusive production of one category of blood cells (the white ones) by the bone marrow 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 are admitted - because the very existence of a context is denied, or ignored.

Costs are brought on by conflict and conflict entails the existence of at least two parties. The criminal does not include in his Weltbild the Other. The dictator doesn't suffer because suffering is brought on by recognizing the Other (empathy). 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 has made it his life's mission to spit the furthest a human has ever spat. This way he has made 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:

  1. 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 existence and served to define it.
  1. 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.
  1. He probably was a happy, content, and satisfied man as far as his main theme in life is concerned.
  1. He achieved significant outside recognition and affirmation of his achievements.
  1. 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 insignificant, ridiculous and bereft of meaning.

This judgment is buttressed 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 to be a more meaningful activity. But why? What makes childrearing more meaningful than distance spitting?

The answer is: common agreement. No philosopher, scientist, or publicist can rigorously establish a hierarchy of the meaningfulness of human actions.

There are two reasons for this surprising inability:

  1. There is no connection between function (functioning, functionality) and meaning (meaninglessness, meaningfulness).
  1. 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 respond by using function-laden phrases. They say: "This activity or my work makes my life meaningful", or: "My role in this world is this and, once finished, I will be able to rest in peace, to die". They attach different magnitudes of meaningfulness to various human activities.

Two things are evident:

  1. 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 continue to live when they are privy to these emotions. They confuse this euphoria and regard it as the meaning of life. Put differently, they mistake the "why" for the "what for". The philosophical assumption that life has a meaning is a teleological one. Life - regarded linearly in a kind of a "progress bar" - proceeds towards something, a final horizon, an aim. But people relate only to what "makes them tick", to the pleasure that they derive from being more or less successful in what they set out to do.
  1. Either the philosophers are wrong in that they do not distinguish between 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 and philosophers use different interpretations of the word "Meaning".

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

Imagine a religious man who has established a new church of which he is the sole member.

Would we say 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 emergent phenomenon (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 thinking of context as something external. We do not feel that our organs provide us with context, for instance (unless we are afflicted with certain mental problems). The apparent contradiction is easily resolved: to provide context, the provider of the context must be either external - 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 externality - whether as a trait of the providers of context, or as a feature of an emergent phenomenon - is all-important. The very meaning of the system is derived from it.

A few more examples to support this approach:

Imagine a national hero without a nation, an actor without an audience, and an author without (present or future) readers. Do their works have any meaning? Not really. The external perspective 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 of a "single gaze" is sufficient to endow any work of art with meaning.

To a large extent, the heroes of history, its main protagonists, are actors with a stage and an audience larger than usual. The only difference between them and "real" thespians might be that future audiences often alter the magnitude of former's "art": it is either diminished or magnified in the eyes of history.

The third example of context-dependent meaningfulness - originally brought up by Douglas Hofstadter in his magnificent opus "Gödel, Escher, Bach - An Eternal Golden Braid" - is 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, the author sends DNA on a trip to outer space, where, in the absence of the correct biochemical environment, aliens would find it impossible to decipher it (to understand its meaning).

By now it appears clear that for a human activity, institution or idea to be meaningful, a context is needed. Whether we can say the same about things natural remains to be seen. Being human, we tend to assume a privileged status. As in certain metaphysical interpretations of 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 in the presence of a context (an important pillar of the "anthropic principle").

In other words, not all contexts were created equal. A human observer is needed in order to determine the meaning, this is an unavoidable constraint. Meaning is the label 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 extract the meaning. But humans are not identical copies, or 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. Yet, the existence of hierarchies as numerous as the number of observers is a notion so intuitive, so embedded in human thinking and behavior that to ignore it would amount to ignoring reality.

People (observers) have privileged systems of attribution of meaning. They constantly and consistently prefer certain contexts to others in the detection of meaning and the set of its 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 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 Rational and the Affective (emotional).

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. It is a reaction to the "cult of idea" which characterized the Enlightenment (Belting, 1998).

Romanticism is the assertion that all human activities are founded on and directed by the individual and his emotions, experience, and mode of expression. Romanticism can, therefore, be construed as a subspecies of individualism. Its roots are ancient: Martin Luther noted disapprovingly that the Catholic Church espoused the view that absolution and redemption depend on the individual, his choices, and his actions (admittedly, mediated by the clergy.) Individualism (though not humanism) seems to predate the Renaissance by a good 15 centuries. As Belting (1998) noted, this gave rise to the concept of the "masterpiece" - an absolute, perfect, unique (idiosyncratic) work by an immediately recognizable and idealized artist.

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. Family formation was a transaction involving considerations both financial and genetic. This was substituted (during the 18th century) by romantic love as the main motivation for and foundation of marriage. 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 most. 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 are expected to be extraordinary in their personal lives or in their personality traits. Biographies are recast by image and public relations experts ("spin doctors") to fit this mould. Hitler was, arguably, the most romantic of all world leaders, closely followed by other dictators and authoritarian figures.

It is a cliché to say that, through politicians, we re-enact our relationships with our parents. Politicians are often perceived to be  father figures. But Romanticism infantilized this transference. In politicians we want to see not the wise, level headed, ideal father but our actual parents: capriciously unpredictable, 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, has had a profound effect on the history of the 20th century.

Romanticism manifested 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 commercial orders which included thematic instructions (the subject, choice of symbols, etc.), delivery dates, prices, etc. Art was a product, almost a commodity, and was treated as such by others (examples: Michelangelo, 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.

Moreover, artists used conventions - more or less rigid, depending on the period - to express emotions. They traded in emotional expressions where others traded in spices, or engineering skills. But they were all  traders 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, to their art.

The romanticist view of the artist painted him 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 dealt 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, endured self-inflicted pains, and ultimate destruction or annihilation. To paraphrase Sontag, their lives became metaphors and they all contracted the metaphorically correct physical and mental illnesses of their day and age: Kafka developed tuberculosis, Van Gogh was mentally ill, 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 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 ethnic lore, 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, terrified of making the wrong moves, of using the wrong contexts, of making the wrong interpretations.

We understand that there is no constant, unchanged, everlasting meaning to life, and that it all really depends on us. We denigrate this kind of meaning. A meaning that is derived by people from human contexts and experiences is bound to be a very poor approximation to the ONE, 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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