Life in the outer landscape is at risk – so too is our inner landscape threatened. Every time a species of animals disappears, the internal bestiary of humanity is also further impoverished. So says Professor Henri F. Ellenberger, eminent historian of psychiatry. He uses the word “bestiary” in a cognate sense to that of the word “imaginary,” to refer to the images of beasts that inhabit us, consciously or unconsciously, and which form part of our interior humus.
Of what materials is the humus of the soil made? Of micro-organisms that feed on organic matter which they thus recycle. Pushing the analogy further, we might say that the interior humus of human beings feeds on living presences which surround us. Such presences might be people or animals or works of art, or landscapes, writings, or objects that inspire.
It is this interior humus which is now threatened, just as is the humus of the soil—and for similar reasons. What living presences nourish people who spend hours each day at the wheel of a car, seeing nothing but other vehicles, and then spend the rest of the day in a confined, purely functional space, eyes fixed on a column of numbers? And then if they spend all their leisure time in front of a television or computer screen, what sort of life can circulate within them? They will soon no longer live; they will only be able to function.
As early as the beginning of the 1950s, psychiatrist Claude Allard noted the appearance of the machine in the dreams and deliria of children. In a book entitled L’enfant machine” (“Machine Child”), he described this phenomenon as the “Hephaestus complex,” Hephaestus being the Greek god of technology—a mechanic.
We no longer live: we function, with the help of energy drinks, pills, and artificial limbs or assistive devices
See here an athlete, a runner more specifically, in a happy moment of his youth, a time when he ran for his own pleasure on a deserted beach. This young man was Britain’s Roger Bannister who, in 1954, was the first man to run the mile in under four minutes. Listen to his own words about that time: “I was seized by the quality of the air and the beauty of clouds, by a kind of mystical perfection. In this supreme moment, I lived an intense joy. I was terrified and frightened by the enormous excitement that these few steps could elicit … The earth seemed almost to move with me. I ran from then on and a cool rhythm invaded my body. Not conscious of my movements, I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and of beauty, a source I never would have dreamed existed.”
Bannister was a natural runner, like the Ethiopian runner, Abebe Bikila, who caused a sensation when he ran barefoot at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Both Bannister and Bikila were still “living,” even in the midst of the most gruelling of competitions. Little by little, however, these athletes have been replaced by creatures who function more than they live, and function under the supervision of a team of experts. We know that from now on, Olympic skiers will have computers in the toes of their skis. This is so clear that the Wall Street Journal was able to present the recent Olympic Games in Vancouver as the “The Olympics of Engineering.”
To live is to respond to the call of life: it is to run toward the sea when we catch sight of it; it is to head off on a walk when the birds sing; it is to hasten to get to work when we are expected and met there by friends, and by a meaningful task. It is to caress the dog that bounds joyously toward you; it is to pick the lily of the valley and to breathe in its perfume; it is to set a table in the colours of the season; it is first of all to contemplate. To contemplate to the point of love. Everywhere the same desire; everywhere the same attachment to its object. Everywhere the same polarity. To function is to substitute an abstract goal for this call of life, and this goal may just as easily be a level of performance at work achieved at the cost of scorning the other pleasures life offers. It may be sexual performance separated from all eroticism and reinforced by a chemical substance, or prowess in sports attained at the cost of the harmony of the body. To function is also, and in the same spirit, to reduce food to its energy-producing dimensions, to reduce dwellings to their utility; to reduce health to adaptation, such that “to be healed” means that one is able to function in society and at work. Everywhere the same will substitutes itself for desire; everywhere the same furious energy expended in pursuit of the goal. Everywhere, preference accorded causality rather than polarity. In simply functioning, objects are transformed into means placed at the service of the will in the pursuit of objectives. By contrast, in life, objects become once again presences, and hence recover their symbolic dimension.
Motivation Replaces Inspiration
We are all recognize it: in the most beautiful quartiers of Paris, as in the Old City of Québec, one can walk forever, almost effortlessly. On the other hand, one would have to be powerfully motivated to cover the same number of kilometres on the fitness machines in our basements. In the first case, we are literally carried away by the ensemble of pleasant and nourishing sensations; each step is its own reward, regardless of the goal, our destination—and even in the absence of any goal, we move forward joyfully. The desire is enough. In the second case, in order to persevere, one must hope to be inscribed in the record books. So each step calls on ever greater efforts of will, and what was once a pleasure is transformed into punishment. I call “motivation”—a word whose meaning has been strongly influenced by its use in behavioural psychology—the force that pushes me to persevere in the achievement of an objective that locks me into myself. I call “inspiration” the joy that transports me from one piece of life, or living presence, to another, from one form of beauty to another, life and beauty being inextricably linked. Wonder lies at the heart of this movement; determination makes the other possible and that is why we can easily burn ourselves out in these efforts. Wonder creates a symbiosis with reality, which renews our energy as it is sapped, whereas when we move forward only by determination, we are obliged to bite the bullet – to soldier on—and to keep our feelings to ourselves, even to the point o f burnout.
Speed is the Goal
Speed is linked to efficiency, and efficiency is the goal of technique. The phenomenon of technique, says Jaccques Ellul, is the search—in every area—for the method that is absolutely the most efficient. In all cultures that adopt technique, Ellul remarks, this goal soon overtakes all others, engendering a technical mentality that impregnates all aspects of life including those where we least expect to find it: love, for example, and food. Why stay longer at the table when we can swallow the calories we need in three mouthfuls of a chemical protein liquid? Viagra promises the same efficiency with respect to sex.
The result of this shift is a head-on collision between technique and life. Life has its immutable rhythms. Pregnancy lasts nine months in human beings; a chicken’s egg takes 21 days to incubate; a particular fruit does not attain maturity until three months after it flowers. And so it is with psychic phenomena—a poem, learned by heart in a single day, may only reveal the fullness of its meaning years later.
There is only one way to avoid this head-on collision—an asceticism that will prevent the technician mentality from penetrating the kingdom of life. For Christians, respect for Sundays should be at the heart of this asceticism, as should fasts from media.
1. Cited by Allen Guttman, Du ritual au record, la nature des spots moderne, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, p. 18.
These are excerpts from a presentation with the same title: “To live or to function?”