Cycles of Liberation
Robert Enoch, August 2001
Liberation from Morality
Wallowing in unrestricted desire: sex, aggression, power, greed, gluttony, pride: the id, the baby, the dictator. Are the instincts liberating? And what becomes of the covetous baby-tyrant – does he find happiness and satisfaction?
Desire is life. Desire implies movement towards its goal. Desire is the way of the instincts. Desires are self-serving, unprincipled and seditious. They care nothing for morality, custom or the feelings or property of others except in relation to the self-preserving subject. If you have ever experienced extreme hunger you will know the power that desire can exert – then even the sight of images of food, or the thought of food becomes vividly emotive. Now might you know what a lonely person feels with revelries of love and sex? But imagine a starving person looking at pictures of food and you can also learn how desire can be diverted and ridicule that person.
Principles are static desires are fluid. Desires originate within the self; principles come from outside the self. Desirousness is sensuous, loose and uncertain because of the excitement of the unknown outcome. Everyone wants to get what he or she wants, yet if one pursued every desire it would be impossible to maintain a coherent life. If one day you feel like staying home instead of working or if you feel like flirting with your best friend’s wife, you can risk unpremeditated changes. Desire is potentially destructive. In order to simplify life most people live by principles that maintain a level homeostasis. Yet when life becomes meaningless and cruel, principles and morality are devalued. Desires mimic the absurdity of life, its uncertainty, its apparent lack of meaningful purpose and its accidents. In the face of meaninglessness principles and beliefs appear to be illusions and constructions of the fearful or the idealistic.
Desire is ambivalent: there one minute, gone the next – even transformed from attraction to repulsion. The self is lost in desire because time and memory means nothing to it. The desirous self lives in the moment but the moments are not connected and lead nowhere: if you forget who you are there’s no telling what you’ll become. It is not possible to live without a plan, without a design of the future or a dream of how you wish life to be. If I am only desire, then what is left when desire is spent? Desire is fickle. If you succumb to a life in the pursuit of desire your energy will dissipate. You will be lucky as well as unlucky to get what you want – for unrealised desires retain a gloss that reality can never keep. Desire leads to disillusionment and rejection – both deeply wounding to the psyche.
Desire covets total power, yet total power is flawed because it leads to a sense that one’s worth to others is based only on fear and in fact one’s ‘friends’ are merely compliant enemies. For however easily and casually he kills his enemies, so his ‘friends’ might equally casually be rid of him. Hence Josef Stalin’s Secret Police and the concessions the Monarchies made to those ‘beneath’ them, thereby affording them reason to be on their side and ensuring their reign.
And if one desires promiscuously, so too one can be desired promiscuously and at once taken up, used and cast away. Fickle desires lead to a fickle universe and so the self becomes worthless by reflection. When one can have whatever one wishes the ennui of the spoilt child sets in.
This reign of power is diminutive and soon the instincts become a restrictive as morality and the ethics of religion. At the end of desire the instinctual person will seek to intensify his experience with greater demands and higher ambitions. But soon he will seek liberation from instincts altogether.
Liberation from the Instincts
Liberation from the instincts may lead him towards a Buddhist-like denial of the self and its cravings. So he learns to abstain from eating, sex, responses to fear and self-preservation. Every itch is dismissed as a distraction.
He may even develop a willingness to suffer in order to further push the instincts away. But as even this proves only to fill his life with meaning, he must also deny it also for it only goes to intensify his being.
The ultimate denial of life is death, or a kind of psychic suicide whereby there is no reason to live or to die, and so the self becomes a kind of walking dead man.
Liberation from Death
This absolute emptiness leads to a growing need for an austere fullness of meaning tempered by reasons and so to religion. The liberation from death comes from an imaginary system in which the self is made eternal via the notion of a transmigratory soul and that the ‘real’ physical world is not the only world1. Such insubstantial beliefs require emotive and improvable physical threats to force the self into submission. But the fear of the demise of the self, indeed the ‘absurdity’ of death, is often enough in itself to insist on belief. Indeed these systems are mostly based on death and respond to the fear that human existence has no ultimate or known purpose and they claim to answer these ultimate questions. Freud called religion a regression to the authority of the parent figure: God. Supplication is demanded by all ‘gods’ in the form of ritual which has the effect of reducing the ego and instilling a sense of ‘purpose’, and may lead to a sublime selflessness which indeed helps one to face death and other ultimate existential problems. These systems of the imagination give birth to intensely dogmatic rules called ‘morals’ which restrict ‘mortal’ existence and curtail the instincts by binding them within the system. Hence, ‘marriage’ becomes a moral act after which a man and woman can morally indulge in sex. In strict ‘religions’ the dress code and physical appearance, types of foods, time and space are circumscribed by the system in order to encompass the entirety of the life of the self and act as both a control system, a mutual reassurance system and an ethnic tradition2.
Imaginative systems, known as ‘religions’, all come with rewards to the faithful, in the form of paradises and eternal pleasures, and their opposite: punishments in the form of ‘hell’ and eternal suffering. In so much as they promise such rewards to the ego in some other worldly place governed by a just parent figure, a ‘god’, they seem to unconsciously reveal mankind’s difficulty with achieving this in life and reality.
Suicide is not a quick and easy route to paradise because it is a ‘sin’ to destroy what ‘god’ has given, that is, a crime against ‘god’ for which the self will suffer damnation3.
A condition of obedience results with the instincts sublimated into the power struggles and proliferation of the ‘religion’ (or other ideology) itself. A kind of ‘religious fundamentalism’ can result as the instincts and doubt in the system are subsequently crushed by ever-more intense doses and interpretations of the imaginative system. Eventually such fervour can precipitate a kind of madness whereby life itself is entirely secondary to the laws of the system. Such selflessness can lead to acts of ‘martyrdom’ whereby the self is voluntarily destroyed or ‘sacrificed’ – as the self seeks emancipation in the form of ‘service’. When the system operates at such intensity it begins to lose credibility; indeed if a system needs to enforce itself, it is because it is becoming less convincing and less effective.
The condition of obedience becomes progressively more tolerant and ‘compassionate’ as the self unconsciously longs to liberate itself from excessive dogma and so reinvents the system with greater kindness, fairer laws and less terrifying punishments. Indeed, the names change often in these cycles of development but the underlying condition seems to remain the same.
Liberation from the Imaginary
The imaginative system gradually passes into the hands of ‘scientific mankind’ and changes from ‘religion’ into ‘morality’ and ‘science’ and defines itself in institutions of law, education, charity, technological advancement, healthcare and welfare. The view of humankind becomes progressively more ‘realistic’. This leads to increasing questioning as democratic civilization scrambles for answers. And so civilization passes through phases of regressive and vehement adherence to dogmatic ideologies and liberal tolerance as it tries to achieve an ideal society.
What were once called ‘transgressions’ become human ‘drives’ with ‘genetic’ of ‘psychological’ reasons within an increasing idea of ‘human nature’ as inherently complex. It becomes difficult to justify any kind of dogmatism and ideologies fail. Tolerance is increased and opportunities are improved within the new liberal framework of ‘the market’ with its promise of satisfaction that is hopelessly inadequate.
Consumerism presents a paradox by offering a culture of desire through the unreal, through aspirations, fantasy and vicarious experience. This reduces reality to a world of mirrors and the senses are swindled out of their own touch. An over-civilized life experience of impotent instincts for those who have failed to successfully sublimate or divert them or simply don’t have the ability to indulge them leads gradually to a breakdown of meaning. The result is apathy and despair. When nothing is at stake, nothing seems worthwhile. Ideology gives us purpose, as do the imaginative systems of religion. Without them the self can only generate anger towards itself which either has the innate resources to deliver satisfaction within the framework of the ‘marketplace society’ or it doesn’t.
Liberation from Apathy
It is said that the solution to life is simple and one only need get a better job and earn more money and get a few more ‘things’ yet if the idea of this doesn’t hold any appeal there’s a serious dilemma within the self. To escape this the self may regress into the imaginative systems of religion and seek out the lost Divine. Or perhaps greed, selfishness, power: the instinctual pleasure centre. Crime might hold the answer with its contempt for civil law and its heroic but self-destructive expression of individuality. Perhaps narcotics or madness and the abandonment of the self. In other words, the liberation from apathy, from the crisis of meaning, is to go straight back to the beginning and start the cycle over again. However, I’m not sure it is ever possible to ‘return’. So what happens next? Or what can happen next? Perhaps a developed creative and intellectual capacity can offer liberation, or the dream of psychoanalysis…
1 Indeed, this ‘world’ may not be the only experience-able world in terms of the brain’s capacities, as hallucinogenic drugs seem to offer those who indulge in them, experiences of ‘other’ realities. However, these are ‘mental experiences’ and are induced by narcotics and they offer no proof that life is continued after physical death, from which no traveller ever returns to offer proof.
2 As is also the case, for example, with football supporters, mutual interest societies and fans of certain pop groups.
3 Technically, ‘God’ also provides disease, therefore to save someone from dying of a terminal illness could also be construed as a ‘sin’. Indeed, to ask God to change anything must also be a sin, as it would be a questioning of ‘His’ design. Diseases are conveniently thought of as ‘evil’ and blamed on the ‘devil’ – another religious creation, and a way to blame it on mankind’s folly or ‘evil-doing’, in which case it is a mortal punishment. In the very distant past people all lived until they were hundreds of years old. (This kind of argument is indicative of the simplistic, legalistic and worldly logical perception of life and death, good and evil).
These essays from “Hooks & Buoys” were written before my faith had solidified. It is interesting to note the energy of antagonism with religion in them; the need for structure and the longing for freedom.