Idols, Part II. History’s Letter to the Millennials

A prospective rule for life as laid down thousands of years ago.

Some months ago, we went from Pygmalion to Baudrillard but missed out a few links in the chain and the focus of that week’s article…ramble…thing was on Roberto Calasso, so I didn’t fully elaborate on a certain point. You may want to read that one first, actually. You may also want to open Google before we begin.

So we return today to the topic of signals and signifiers, symbols and simulacra.

Let’s begin with Helen, the archetype, the idol and the eidolon. The ancient Greeks knew there were copies of Helen everywhere, they knew what she was. They understood that a bit of Helen was in everything beautiful. And everything beautiful was in a sense a copy of Helen, an eidolon, because it engendered desire.

That includes Galatea, Pygmalion’s fortunate statue, who begins her life a literal eidolon. She is a worshipped object which gains its own sentience only in reference to Aphrodite, without whom she is nothing. Galatea cannot exist without Helen, because Helen is almost a personification of Aphrodite herself.

Galatea is a signifier of Helen.

Jorge Luis Borges touched on this without mentioning any names when he wrote about a map of such complexity that it covered the exact area of the terrain it was mapping. While being a different object in itself, and only existing in reference to an original, it was treated as though it were original by the inhabitants. From Borges, Western culture took only a short jump to Baudrillard’s ‘hyperreality’. Baudrillard asserts, because he’s a post-modernist, that the signifier is more real than reality. In other words, where, for Pygmalion, Galatea is more ‘real’ than Helen or Aphrodite even though the latter are an essential part of what she is.

This is the essential flaw of post-modern thought. Where is the basis? Without Helen, Galatea is nothing, and without a reality, hyperreality is also nothing.

Ancient civilisations were much more intelligent than the average Joe would have you believe. Just because they lacked Netflix and iPhones and electric cars does not make people of the past stupid. The scientific method may not have existed, but there are other kinds of knowledge.

There is a prevailing trend today, a worrying one, about excessive scientism, because people assume that lack of a God implies materialism to be the only accurate and most morally good way to live. However, rather than manifesting in a true scientific community, it becomes worship of pop-science – Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye being the chief eidolons – and worship of rationality and materialism for its own sake – see Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Never mind that the scientific method cannot prove anything. No, I am not a creationist. The scientific method can only disprove. A successful experiment with any integrity never states that the hypothesis has been proven, only demonstrated as true in this particular instance. If it doesn’t happen (especially when we need it to, for one reason or another) that’s a Black Swan event.

In any case, back to the scientism. Scientism is as much an ideology as radical Christianity, or communism or anything else, and just as dangerous, like all ideologies. Ideologies, and many close-minded people, assume they’ve seen enough of the world that the framework through which they interpret things can stop developing. This results in the classic Sherlock Holmes mistake whereby they twist facts to suit theories rather than the inverse. This is why, for example, many people over 50 assume that millenial depression is not a problem, when in fact it is (we have a serious issue with malaise because our culture hasn’t got a Bible anymore). In an ideal world, people would never assume they’d seen enough of the world to stop developing the framework through which they interpreted it.

Proper intellectual development is when you allow facts to change your theories, because good things happen to smart people, and ‘smart people’ are those who understand and know things. You can’t understand things and exist in chaos at the same time. If the framework you use to interpret the facts of the world doesn’t match the world, you’re going to find yourself in a chaotic situation very quickly. Take, as an example, someone who thinks communism would work across the planet. Undoubtedly he has some piles of meaningless statistics and data which has been stripped of all context to fit his hypothesis, which he will use in a debate against you; but he refuses to put the data back into context because that would clearly make him wrong. And when he tries to implement communism in the world things go wrong very quickly, because the framework doesn’t match the world.

And people hate being wrong. They hate it more than almost anything, because it’s like a tiny trip to the underworld, in the psychological sense, where you have to work as fast as you can to reassess everything and make your framework match the truth again so you can continue to function. The framework cannot exist without facts, the eidolon cannot live without a basis. Galatea cannot live without Aphrodite and Helen.

My fundamental point is that we cannot be all-accepting agnostics forever. Contained within post-modern neo-liberal thought is the assumption that Galatea is Helen, that the result is the reason. This is a grievous mistake, hard-line materialism, because we think we understand the nature of ‘truth’ when we really don’t. We think we know what knowledge is? No. There are kinds of knowledge other than objective factual scientific truth and to omit them from the human record and consider them ‘lower’ forms of knowledge is a mistake. To consider your ancestors idiots because Francis Bacon was born after them is pretty stupid.

For true peace on a personal and social level you do need to commit to some universal truth other than materialistic truth, because if you refuse to accept anything but the most banal scientific observations as factual you can’t build a framework to assess the world with without wanting to kill yourself a la Thomas Ligotti. Meaning cannot be found in scientific truth, only a very personal, inarticulate kind of truth. The lack of one is the problem our generation faces.


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