Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay



Some Observations on Modern Folly

essay by

Joseph S. Salemi

Department of Classics, Hunter College, CUNY

    Since the recent publication in the journals Neovictorian Cochlea, Pivot, and Edge City Review of several selections from my verse satire A Gallery of Ethopaths, a number of persons have written to me inquiring about the words ethopathy, ethopath and ethopathic. My forthcoming article in Maledicta ("Ethopathy: A Word Whose Time Has Come") will give the philological and historical basis for these neologisms. But I would like to take some space here on the EP&M website to descant on the reality that prompted my satire in the first place.
    In C.S. Lewis's devilish fantasy The Screwtape Letters, one demon gives the following advice to another: "Aggravate that most useful human characteristic, the horror and neglect of the obvious." Lewis meant this as a sardonic comment on our individual failings, but over the years it became clear to me that his words could be taken in a collective sense as well. I began to realize that a great deal of what is absurd in contemporary life stems from a broadly based pathological need to deny or circumvent the obvious. In fact, over the last two centuries whole ideological and philosophical systems have been concocted to make such denials intellectually respectable. Liberalism, socialism, materialism, and feminism are all complex ways to avoid thinking about reality.
    Let me carry out a small test right now. Here are five propositions for the reader to consider:

        1. The poor have fewer options than the rich.

        2. Men take sexual advantage of women.

        3. Many students are uneducable.

        4. Strong nations impose their will on weaker ones.

        5. People generally favor their family and friends over strangers.

    Do some of my readers feel a rush of indignation when reading over this list? If so, they prove my point. Although the five propositions are incontrovertible, people get irrationally angry when you assert them. Why? These are unchanging realities of the human condition, and every sentient person is aware of them. But try to state them baldly, as I have done above, and you'll generate a hubbub of objections, arguments, and outraged protests. In short, a significant number of people in the modern world are offended by the facts.
    Some of these same people will immediately object that they don't deny the facts; they simply want to change them and make a better world than the one we have. But that argument is just a dodge. None of the five propositions will ever be falsified, as anyone with the slightest historical sense knows. Despite decades of democratic egalitarianism, socialist planning, Communist confiscation, and progressive taxation schemes, the poor still have fewer options than the rich. Despite floods of feminist pamphleteering and crackpot consciousness-raising sessions, it's still inadvisable for any nubile woman to remain more than ten minutes alone with a healthy man. Despite mounds of jargony rubbish published by educational theorists, anyone who's labored in a classroom will tell you privately that some students would be better off on a chain gang. And so on down my list.
    Now it's a funny thing about human beings--when we deny obvious facts, we are obliged to create intricate structures of evasion to make the denial plausible. This is easy for a confidence-man or a criminal, since he only has to deceive his victim's intelligence. But many contemporary folk must evade their own normal perceptions as well--they have to work themselves into a state of mind where they sincerely believe their own fantasies and delusions.
    Consider George Orwell's novel l984, wherein the main character--under torture--actually perceives that four raised fingers are not four but five. Orwell was satirizing modern totalitarian states where the truth had become a political football rather than a statement of objective reality. But in fact these same mind-control systems often accomplished their propagandistic aims without the aid of torture. Think of those Communists who swallowed the Hitler-Stalin pact without a murmur, or who cheerfully changed their political views every time the Kremlin altered the Party Line. Or those Italians who recited the Fascist motto "Mussolini is always right" no matter how often Il Duce changed his mind. Or those pompous American liberals who still reflexively defend Fidel Castro, despite the fact that he is a loathsome little Marxist pustule who has enslaved, degraded, and beggared his countrymen. All this elaborate self-deceit has been the rule rather than the exception in our times.
    It even has a historical pedigree. In Saint Ignatius Loyola's system of spiritual discipline for the Jesuits, there is a level of obedience known as "the third order of humility." This third order of humility is attained when a Jesuit not only carries out what he personally considers an absurd or harmful command of a superior, but also psyches himself into a state of enthusiastic approval of that same command, despite his own contrary perceptions. In addition to implementing the absurd directive, a Jesuit who has reached the third order of humility also becomes a convinced partisan of it.
    You might think that this is impossible for a sentient being, or only possible under the special conditions of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. But in fact something quite like it is becoming normal for a large portion of the population. Look at our health-food freaks, who have managed to convince themselves that the tasteless muck they swallow is actually delicious and appetizing. Or those Protestant fundamentalists who dismiss geological evidence of the earth's age with talk of "Satanic deception." Or those starry-eyed UN diplomats who seriously believe that the people in the Balkans or the Middle East want to live peaceably with their neighbors. Or those feminist ideologues who insist that a woman can do every single job a man can do, no matter how physically demanding. Or those frenzied careerists who wreck their health, mental stability, and private lives through overwork, but who nevertheless insist that they are blissfully happy doing so. What's motivating all these different people? It's not the Jesuit ideal of perfect obedience, but something just as demanding. That thing is ethopathy.
    Ethopathy is my own neologism for a peculiarly modern syndrome. It refers to a deep psychological urge to do or believe something bizarre, stupid, pointless, and even harmful; and to cling to it in spite of all common sense, evidence, and untoward consequences. Ethopathy is spreading like an epidemic through the developed world, and in our major cities it has become so entrenched that to protest against its manifestations marks you as a crank or a misanthrope. Now the world has always been filled with fools; that's not what I'm talking about. Ethopathy is more than the garden-variety asininity that afflicts most of the human race. Ethopathy is conscientious idiocy--that is, the doing of something palpably stupid out of allegiance to some sick notion.
    Let me give a differentiating example. A lonely old woman who decides to turn over every dime she has to Reverend Leroy Schmuckmeister and his Glory Hallelujah Gospel Tabernacle may be silly and deluded, but she is not ethopathic. She might be acting out of senility, sentiment, superstition, or all three, but at least her folly is understandable, in that an observer can see some kind of misguided motivation behind it. On the other hand, someone who spends thousands of dollars for a sex-change operation is completely ethopathic, because the act is a form of self-mutilation that produces no essential change, and which is done in accordance with the trendy ideological lie that says one's sexual identity is nothing more than a social construct. The old woman is just a fool; the transgendered person is morally and intellectually sick. That's what ethopathy is: folly with a pseudointellectual justification at its core.
    The modern world, with its complex layers of reality-insulation and highly elaborated theorizing, makes ethopathy possible on a scale undreamt of in the past. Our cities are filled with people who think that vitamins and aerobic exercises will keep their bodies sexually attractive into old age, and others who think that massive tattooing and metal studs in the face and tongue will render them beautiful. There are people who think that wearing headphones all day long to listen to raucous popular music is a sensible recreation. There are people who will wait hours on line to enter some trendy dance club or bar, simply because they have heard that it is "a hot spot." Others think that Oprah Winfrey is a serious thinker, or that Elvis Presley is still alive. All of these types are ethopathic.
    There are also specific forms of ethopathy in the various professions. College faculties are overrun with teachers who think that students learn best by sitting in little circles and emoting. The armed forces are increasingly staffed by officers who think their primary mission is to avoid taking casualties. The churches are filled with ministers who believe neither in God nor an afterlife, but who nevertheless insist that we have a wide range of social and moral obligations. The legal profession is now dominated by persons without the slightest interest in law or equity, but only in pettifogging and procedural maneuvers. And politics (as our last President vividly demonstrated) is in the hands of people who are incapable of distinguishing between the national interest and their own arrogant self-absorption.
    These were some of the phenomena that prompted me to begin A Gallery of Ethopaths, and as I wrote I discovered more and more manifestations of ethopathy in our society. Whole sections of the poem seemed to write themselves as I focused my attention on the more egregious forms of the distemper. But when I began to show completed parts of the poem to friends and family members, something unexpected happened. A significant number of my readers began to defend the various targets I had chosen, on the grounds that it was unchivalrous of me to attack the helpless. As my brother Rosario commented: "If you have to believe in dieting and Oprah Winfrey, isn't that profoundly sad? These people have no real substance to their interior lives." The gist of his objection was that ethopaths are weak, deluded, and essentially hapless types whose stupidity and vulnerability should be pitied rather than savaged.
    I'd take this objection more seriously if ethopathy were limited to those pathetic nerds who are caught up in eating disorders and self-help therapies. But this is not the case. The presence of ethopathy in the highest levels of society means that this is not a problem confined to addlepated housewives and silly teenagers. The late Princess Diana, wife to the Prince of Wales, was as pure an example of ethopathy as ever existed, as are many prominent celebrities, show-business types, and politicians. And the fact that a large section of our chattering classes makes an explicit theoretical defense of ethopathic attitudes and habits proves that ethopathy thoroughly permeates our intelligentsia, like fat in a plum pudding. Deep environmentalism, animal rights agitation, French critical theory, deconstructivist architecture, conceptual art, and the entire gamut of postmodernist posturing are all examples of ethopathy at work in the intellectual and political spheres. This is not just a disease of the talk-shows and trailer parks.
    My brother's objection (which is basically a Christian-humanist one) calls forth another reply. Satire is not meant to be kind and humane. The satirist's purpose is similar to that of a sniper: to place his sighting reticle directly on the enemy and take him out with a well-placed shot. The notion that ethopaths are in need of sympathetic understanding is itself a symptom of a general ethopathic trend--namely, the belief that everyone everywhere is an oppressed victim of some sort. This myth about the ubiquity of victimhood is why American society now has elephantiasis of the tear ducts.
    However, the objections that were made in this vein troubled me, for I worried that perhaps ethopathy was merely the current manifestation of that complex of disabilities which the Catholic Church attributes to "the poor." This was the only time that I had serious doubts about the entire project of A Gallery of Ethopaths. Let me explain.
    In traditional Catholic social thought, "the poor" are understood to be not simply those without financial resources, but anyone who for whatever reason (intellectual, physical, emotional, psychological, or circumstantial) is somehow unable to get along comfortably in the world. Thus, persons who are constitutionally indolent, or not especially bright, or painfully introverted, or crippled in limb, or highly excitable, or who are living under some discriminatory disadvantage, would be called "the poor." The word is used because these people probably will not prosper (in worldly terms) as easily as those who are free from such disabilities. These "poor" may also be poor in the economic sense, but not necessarily. For example, a rich man who is hopelessly enslaved to alcoholism would, in the Church's eyes, be considered one of "the poor," Why? Because he is in the clutches of some terrible physical dependency that impoverishes his existence, and which will most likely be a major stumbling-block to his spiritual life as well. Similarly, a person of low intelligence or blunted perceptions would be numbered among "the poor," since he will probably be buffetted about by life, never having the rewards and advantages that persons with quicker wits enjoy. The poor, therefore, are those with fewer human resources than the rest of us, but these resources are not to be understood in a monetary sense exclusively.
    It is the obligation of Catholics to help the poor, not just financially (though that is a convenient means of doing it) but in any way that will help them get through life more easily. This is why the Church enjoins the spiritual and temporal works of mercy on all its members. These works are simple enough: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, teach the ignorant, console the afflicted, visit the sick, give counsel to the troubled, correct the sinner, and several other injunctions. All of them are aimed at the poor, for by doing these works one helps to supply, in individual ways, the lack of resources under which many unfortunate persons labor.
    Here were two questions that vexed me: Are ethopaths, with all their silliness and folly, simply modern manifestations of "the poor"? And if they are, don't they deserve the works of mercy rather than the lash of satire?
    But the longer I considered the matter, the more convinced I became that ethopaths were not what the Church calls "the poor." Foolish they may be, but helpless and resourceless they are not. People working out on idiotic exercise machines, or popping expensive vitamin capsules, or wasting their money at quack therapy sessions, are simply narcissists with too much leisure time and too much discretionary income. An overpaid English professor spouting abstruse theoretical jargon to an uncomprehending class of freshmen is just a self-absorbed pedant. And some brainless Western diplomat trying to dictate liberal pieties to warring tribes in the Balkans or Palestine can hardly be classified as "helpless"--he's just a hubristic meddler, interfering in matters about which he knows nothing. No, I said--these types don't deserve pity and aid, as a homeless man or a retarded child might deserve. Ethopaths deserve only ridicule, and sharp ridicule at that. So I continued to write.
    Let me conclude on a personal note. If I don't attack these people nobody else will. Show me one contemporary poet who has gone after these current stupidities with real satiric force. I don't mean "playfully," or "wittily," or "ironically," or "good-naturedly," or "lightheartedly," or any of the other evasive adverbial qualifiers that indicate a milksop's unwillingness to clench his fists. I mean real force. We live in a society that exerts enormous peer pressure to conform and get along with others. Most contemporary poets--and that includes the New Formalists--have shown themselves to be no less susceptible than any other group to such pressure. They are essentially timeserving careerists interested in grants, prizes, fellowships, and tenure-track teaching slots. Can one really expect anything controversial, or even vaguely upsetting, from their verse? I doubt it. I dare them to prove me wrong about this. But I won't hold my breath waiting.

Joseph S. Salemi

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