Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Confession of a Grouchy Classical Music Lover


Photo Credit: Patrik Goethe

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶I have written about my classical music preferences and biases previously, but I want to return to the topic now with hammer and tong. So, beware, faint of heart.
¶Firstly, the instruments. On the negative side of the ledger I enter the violin—at least the violin when played as a solo instrument; when the violins are part of a mass involving other instruments, as in some of Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale ballets or in Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, they are pleasing enough to my ear. When the piece has been composed specifically for a single violin or a duet, then the often scratchy sound irritates my ear, much as when a chalk is dragged across a blackboard. I used to appreciate Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” very much; now they only irritate me, possibly because they summon up in my mind all those phony smiling faces of the Baroque era but more certainly because they sound so much alike.  Unfortunately for me, compositions featuring violin solos seem to dominate the playlists of most classical music stations. But that perception could be due simply to my sensitivity to annoyances.
¶Heading the list of favorite instruments come the classical guitar and the English horn: I can’t break the tie. Both of those instruments have prominent parts in Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”. Most of the other string and wind instruments I can appreciate, too, particularly the cello and the flute; sorry, but I can’t recall any particular compositions, besides Sergei Prokofiev ‘s “Peter and the Wolf”, where those instruments are focal. (But that’s just an index of my musicological ignorance; not a fair picture of our international repertory.)
¶Other instruments which can be pleasing when employed moderately are the coronet and the drums.
¶What it all boils down to, I guess, is that I generally prefer the quieter compositions, such as works the Impressionists Paul Ravel and Claude DeBussy gave us. Richard Wagner’s mystical preludes to “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” also appeal to me. None of the louder compositions — especially Ludwig von Beethoven’s heavy, repetitive symphonies —appeal to me; yeah, I go against the general consensus there. (When I want something louder and faster I’ll tune in to a country-and-western station.)
¶Nearly all the adagios, especially the second movement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjues” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” easily fit into my comfort zone. The majority of classical music fans list those two pieces among their favorites, so I am “with the crowd” there at least. In fact, I can’t think of any composition finer than “Aranjues”.
¶It will probably strike the regular readers of my blog posts that I favor adagios because I am a melancholic, so it is natural that slower and moodier pieces would appeal to me. However, one does not reach seventy-seven years without learning that nothing is black and white. My tastes have changed over the years. For instance, I used to really enjoy George Frideric Handel’s entertainments for King George of England: you know, “Fireworks” and “Water”; now my awakened class-consciousness is repelled by them. Same story with Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”.
¶Of recent, I have found myself appreciating Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart more than I did back when I was in my twenties and thirties. Poor Mozart got off to a bad start with me because of a radio program to which I used to listen, the theme music for which was “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. For some reason I can’t recall, it irritated me. During the same period, I saw the film “Elvira Madigan”, a depressing, romantic story that featured the andante from Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21”; the concerto’s part in that film was so prominent that it gained the popular sub-title “Theme from Elvira Madigan”. Now, however, I have begun to favor Mozart because so much of his music is melodic and cheerful, especially when compared to Beethoven’s; a person can hum more of it.
¶I suppose I should apologize to any readers who don’t gain much from reading the above. True enough, there is not anything enlightening or entertaining in the content. But this “confession” is really just a “note-to-self”. I seldom attract any comments on my posts and only a few “likes” here and there, so I imagine I am writing mostly to myself anyway. By this point — four years into my blog-posting — I have begun to accept that reality. After all, I seldom read other bloggers’ posts either. And I think writing to one’s self is preferable to talking to one’s self (something I also do too much).
¶So, goodbye, Cyberworld. Have a pleasant 2017.


Portrait of a Sociopath

NOTE TO READERS:  Happy New Year! (Might as well be optimistic…or pretend that I am.) Today I will step aside and let a couple of other people assume the space at my keyboard: David Porter, MA, LADC; and Christine Hunter, MA, RCC. They authored an article about Antisocial Personality Disorder [DSM-5 301.7 (F60.2)] that was published on the website, which is where I have excerpted part of it for reprinting here (the site invites readers to share). The reason I have brought the article to my blog is that it seems to me to describe a prominent national personality. See if you can detect whom I mean.

* * * * * *

APD (Antisocial Personality Disorder) is a DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), diagnosis assigned to individuals who habitually violate the rights of others without remorse (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). People with Antisocial Personality Disorder may be habitual criminals, or engage in behavior which would be grounds for criminal arrest and prosecution, or they may engage in behaviors which skirt the edges of the law, or manipulate and hurt others in non-criminal ways which are widely regarded as unethical, immoral, irresponsible, or in violation of social norms and expectations. The terms psychopathy or sociopathy are also used, in some contexts synonymously, in others, sociopath is differentiated from a psychopath, in that a sociopathy is rooted in environmental causes, while psychopathy is genetically based.

The term antisocial may be confusing to the lay public, as the more common definition outside of clinical usage is an individual who is a loner or socially isolated. The literal meaning of the word antisocial can be more descriptive to both the lay public and professionals: to be anti-social, is to be against society; against rules, norms, laws and acceptable behavior. Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder tend to be charismatic, attractive, and very good at obtaining sympathy from others; for example, describing themselves as the victim of injustice. Some studies suggest that the average intelligence of antisocials is higher than the norm. Antisocials possess a superficial charm, they can be thoughtful and cunning, and have an intuitive ability to rapidly observe and analyze others, determine their needs and preferences, and present it in a manner to facilitate manipulation and exploitation. They are able to harm and use other people in this manner, without remorse, guilt, shame or regret.

It is widely stated that antisocials are without empathy, however this can be disputed, as sadistic antisocials will use empathy to experience their victim’s suffering, and derive a fuller pleasure from it (Turvey, 1995). This is depicted in the classic work “A Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, as the main character entombs another man alive “…then I heard the furious vibrations of the chain. The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labours and sat down upon the bones.” (Poe, 1846 ). Some research also suggests that sociopaths and psychopaths do have degrees of empathy, but with an innate ability to switch it off at will. (Meffer, Gazzola, den Boer, Bartells, 2013). This connection to empathy may give hope to future successful treatment as it suggests individuals with APD may be trained.

Symptoms & Criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder

According to the DSM-5, there are four diagnostic criterion, of which Criterion A has seven sub-features.

ADisregard for and violation of others rights since age 15, as indicated by one of the seven sub features:
1. Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
2. Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement
3. Impulsive behavior
4. Irritability and aggression, manifested as frequent assaults on others, or engages in fighting
5. Blatantly disregards safety of self and others
6. A pattern of irresponsibility and
7. Lack of remorse for actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

The other diagnostic Criterion are:
B. The person is at least age 18
CConduct disorder was present by history before age 15
D. T
he antisocial behavior does not occur in the context of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

When “Principle” Becomes Treason

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” — An adage variously attributed to French Protestant apologist Jacques Abbadie (1684); Encyclpopédie editors Denis Diderot and Rond d’Alembert (1754); and American Prohibitionist William J. Groo (1885). Its attribution to Abraham Lincoln began in some late 19th century newspaper articles and is now considered questionable. But, whatever its original source, I deem its use in this epigram appropriate; and I certainly wish that the “some” of our generation were not so numerous.

¶A policeman many years ago said to me, “You can’t reason with a drunk any more than you can with a crazy person.” That remark, as well as its corollary—“preaching to the choir is a waste of time”—have largely kept me from engaging in political arguments over the years. Most Americans discuss serious topics, like politics and religion, only with people with values and attitudes like our own: a phenomenon known colloquially as “preaching to the choir”.  So, perhaps it is a sign of maturing in our national psyche that both tendencies have become fodder for sociologists and political columnists nowadays.  Thus, I suppose readers of the following commentary with any comprehension will be “choir members”. Despite the seeming pointlessness of engaging in that echo situation, I am publishing it anyway.
¶We have awakened to the dire reality that our self-governance has been strangled by self-interest and extreme political partisanship, and we are baffled by the absence of any certain way of breaking the chokehold. When, we wonder, did the ability to get things done in Congress begin to ossify? Was it the shameful period of Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” and Watergate and his resulting resignation? Was it the national fracturing during the extended war in Vietnam? Was it the confusing “rabbit trails” responses to 9-11 and the conflicts in the Middle East? Was it the sudden perception of corruption in our banks, religious institutions, schools, and other former pillars of society? Was it the contrasting perceptions of birth control and climate change? Was it the election of a man of mixed race to the presidency? Was it all of these events combined?
¶Personally, I think it was all of the above, but I would also add the overwhelming and exhausting rapidity of change, not just in the United States but in the world as a whole. And there is the major role—both positive and negative—played by “social media”. It is simply too much for us to cope with at once. Yet there is a sizable minority—approximately 30 to 40 percent—of our voting age population who believe we can return to the “good ol’ days” when the U.S. was the dominant center of manufacturing, when Caucasians constituted the majority of the population, when religious dogma dictated our home and sex lives, and when “people of color” knew their place…and stayed there.
¶I am more liberal than some people, more conservative than others. Although I lean mostly to the left, I think conservatives have had a very positive and necessary role to play in our political system. The problem is that too many modern “conservatives” are not what they claim to be: they instead are “reactionaries”. Let me clarify that remark by revealing my definition of a real conservative, i.e. one who believes nothing should be changed unless and until altered circumstances clearly warrant a change. A conservative capable of reasoning about disputed issues will know when to be adamant, when to compromise, and when to acknowledge his/her error. The goal of a conservative politician—and of a liberal politician as well—should always be the maintenance and improvement of his community’s well-being; it should not be the maintenance of his elected position and his party’s hardline agenda. Some degree of principle is necessary for good governance, but ideology should not be the basis of principle. The Constitution is a living guide, not a halter.
¶And now, since at the latest the surge of the Tea Party, we have had a breakdown in comity in the U.S., as exemplified by the Congress; with the expulsion of many of the moderate Republicans, little to nothing gets accomplished in Washington…unless you want to call forcing a shutdown of government and ignoring judgeship nominations “accomplishing something”. Sen. Mitch McConnell and former House Speaker John Boehner both announced early in President Barack Obama’s first term that they intended to make that term his only term. Near the end of Obama’s second term, McConnell declared that the Senate would not even allow a hearing for Obama’s nominee for a Supreme Court seat. And, confronted with the possibility that Hillary Clinton would succeed Obama, McConnell and his henchmen (Richard Burr (R-NC), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and John McCain (R-AZ) have vowed they would keep the Supreme Court count at eight seats for the next four years; that contradicts their previous rationale for prohibiting a judgeship hearing until after the election to allow “the people’s voice” in the choice of a judge. And now they and the  House Republicans are determined to block all initiatives President Clinton might propose. In other words, the Republicans are ready and willing, just because of their ideological halters, to prevent any legislation—laws, budgets and regulations—that would benefit the people . The Republicans also accused Obama of being ineffective as a leader and at the same time of being a dictator because he has used “executive actions” to get urgent matters resolved while they absented themselves from Washington. What hypocrites!
¶For the above and other reasons, I have developed a very negative view of Republicans overall. I hate to “paint with a broad brush”, but now I see Republicans as either con artists (if they know what is going on) or as willing gulls (if they don’t know what is going on). Some of their leaders, such as McConnell, Ted Cruz, and Richard Burr, I think should be tried for treason or at least for dereliction of duty. They are willing to destroy my country just because, for eight years, we had an African-American in the White House and might have a woman in the White House come January. Phooey!


Missing the Presence

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶A [person] should shine with the divine Presence without having to work at it. He should get the essence out of things and let the things themselves alone. That requires at first attentiveness and exact impressions, as with the student and his art. One must be permeated with divine Presence, informed with the form of beloved God who is within him, so that he may radiate that Presence without working at it….
¶The effect or expression of love often appears like a bright light, as spirituality, devotion, or jubilation and yet, as such, it is by no means best! These things are not always due to love. Sometimes they come of having tasted nature’s sweets. They also can be due to heavenly inspiration or to the senses, and people at their best are not the ones who experience them most. For if such things are really due to God, He gives them to such people to bait and allure them on and also to keep them away from [worse] company. But when such people increase in love, such [ecstatic] experiences will come less facilely, and the love that is in them will be proved by the constancy of their fidelity to God, without such enticements.
—Meister Eckhart, The Talks of Instruction, §§7, 10
¶The Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are the [children] of God. This testimony which grace affords to our conscience is the true joy of the soul….And when the soul is in this state of peace, it is also refined in thought….
¶This manna is heavenly food and the bread of angels, as Holy Scripture says. For angels are fed and filled by the clear sight and burning love of God; and that is manna. For we may ask what it is, but we cannot fully understand. One who loves God is not filled with manna here, but while he remains in the body he receives a small taste of it.”
— Walter Hilton (b. 1340-45, d. 1396), The Ladder of Perfection, Bk. II, Chap. 40

¶Anyone who has regularly read my posts since I began it in January 2013 can probably recall that a few of the writings concerned spiritual events and reflections as I experienced them. Off and on in my youth I pondered the option of becoming a Methodist minister and briefly — when I was virtually inebriated with mysticism — even a monk. The late Clark Calvert, who was my pastor and mentor for a few years when I had announced that I was going into the ministry, told me that “once God calls you He never lets you go”. I think Clark meant for that remark to reassure me, but actually it scared me a little. I had my doubts: I wasn’t totally accepting of the Apostle’s Creed and I didn’t relish the prospect of people changing their tone and addressing me as “Reverend” when I approached them.
¶Eventually I became disillusioned with organized religion and quit going to church. I had become weary of church members forming cliques and quarreling with each other; of ministers criticizing other ministers and even off-handedly noting the aging and decline not only of our congregation but of mainstream Protestantism itself. The only religious groups that seemed to be growing were the tiresomely antique Catholic Church; the “gospel of wealth” mega-churches; and the “hard shell” denominations such as the Baptists and the Disciples of Christ, who appeared to believe that the surest metric of one’s salvation was the number of Bible verses one has memorized.
¶Nonetheless, I retained the memories of the better elements of my church-going days: the summer evenings when the windows of White Rock Methodist would be raised and we would be seated in our pews, fanning ourselves with those illustrated hand fans and singing zestfully songs like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Amazing Grace”. And I still ponder positively some of the remarks of Jesus: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”…” “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak….” etc.
¶Then, in midlife, I had my truly major spiritual awakening. I am not speaking here of the assurance of “being saved” about which the more orthodox evangelicals speak, nor of being “called”, although some people might describe it as such. No, while I was out on my morning walk around White Rock Lake one day, I felt a sudden sense of knowing, of a notice within my mind or heart or soul that I was “blessed”. Yes, it was a pleasant insight, it certainly did not harm me, but it did surprise and puzzle me because I did not understand what being spiritually blessed really means.* Of course, I knew that I had been blessed with some artistic gifts (which I had not nurtured to the degree that I should have) but that was history — an established known quantity — and this seemed to relate to a more immediate and singular condition. I did not know for sure what it meant then; nor do I know now; however, I have chosen intellectually to interpret it to mean that the Holy Spirit had extended His grace to me, opened my eyes, and presented itself as my guide to whatever extent I was capable and willing to be guided. If so, then that was indeed a major blessing. But what exactly did it entail?
¶I read many mystical works during that time, a period which has become muddled chronologically after two decades so that I cannot relate the events as coherently as I would like. But that is not necessary anyway. The salient elements are still available: (1) I read all those mystics to find the essence of a few terms: “yearning” [John Ruysbroeck], “the lure” [Meister Eckhart], and “dark night of the soul” [John  of the Cross]; (2) I was practically bombarded, it seemed, by strange experiences, some of which were interpretable as spiritual consolations (mystical encouragements to continue the search) as well as others which were simply weird with no apparent connection to the spiritual life; and (3) I learned that a day would come when the consolations would end, the Presence would leave me in the “dark night of the soul”. And that’s where I have been for a little over two decades.
¶I have posted on this site (March 30, 2015) a much longer account of my spiritual journey. There is not much point in pursuing the discussion any further here. Rather, I want to reveal my plea to the Holy Spirit about the hunger I feel for a return — even if only a brief one — of the Presence. I don’t know for sure why I feel this urgency now; I am aware that my request goes beyond the bounds of the usual spiritual progression and that I should not expect any more special attention. Perhaps my hunger comes out of my getting old, perceiving that the twilight of my life is nigh and hoping that I won’t go to the ashes jar while still in the dark night. Or perhaps it derives from my perception of modern life as a devolution into absurdity and insanity, and my hope that the Holy Spirit will help me make sense of all the craziness. Or perhaps both.

*For more commentary on the “blessed” question see my blog post of Oct. 26, 2014.


A Drama of Self: The Tipping Point



©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I’m curious: Do you see yourself as a character — in particular, the protagonist — in a screenplay? Ever reflect on the plotline, its beginning and all scenes since then, trying to figure out the other characters’ parts and the probable denouement? Or am I the only one so deeply solipsistic as to be constantly gazing on the internal screen? No, that can’t be the case, else the word “solipsistic” would never have been coined; they don’t make up adjectives applicable to only one person. Still, I find it difficult to imagine other people’s dramas, whether they be adventurous epics, tragedies or comedies, except as they tangentially affect my drama.

Many of us bloggers, I believe, use our blogs as candid diaries — electronic volumes open to the cosmic universe instead of little books hidden away in secret drawers. We can use them as depositories of our thoughts and feelings (mostly feelings), pretending that they are locked up in our computers, at first only peripherally aware that they are actually scattered across the planet and beyond. But then another part of us wonders how invisible and generally non-responsive readers perceive our outpourings. Mostly, all we can glimpse are their national flags. We are, then, self-analyzing split personalities.

So, desiring to be more honest than I have been during most of my life, I intend to relate the story of how I believe my solipsism became the major theme of an imaginary biopic; if one cannot repress a congenital tendency, then perhaps he at least can relieve the pressure by allowing it full expression, like steam from a teapot.

Going back to childhood meditations and actions, though I truly believe the habit really began that long ago, is beyond my capacity; the images are too fractured and vague. A clearer scene is more available in my nineteenth year, while I was in the air force and stationed on Okinawa, largest of the Ryukyu Islands. That was when I began to read very serious books for the first time; when, under the influence of the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell, I developed a longing to resolve all paradoxes; when I began to question my beliefs and especially every action’s motive. As a psychiatrist two years later put it, “You look at both sides of the coin and the edge too.”

An anecdote that quite well illustrates my message here concerns a book discussion group that one of the chaplains on the base initiated. As I recall, there were about a dozen of us airmen and civilians sitting in a circle at the first meeting, when the chaplain reviewed some nonfiction book and invited the rest of us to offer our comments. Then the chaplain explained that his performance was essentially a pattern he wanted us to follow when reviewing our own reading choices in future meetings. I, the eager fool, volunteered to present a review at the next meeting, a week later.

I had already been reading two books alternately: Arthur Koestler’s Reflections on Hanging, a critique of capital punishment; and some book whose title I cannot recall, a collection of historical narratives about various heinous crimes committed in England. While reading them I became aware of the dichotomy in my reactions to the books’ subjects: when reading Koestler my feelings reacted against capital punishment; when reading the other book my revulsion could be so strong in some cases that I believed no type of punishment could be harsh enough for the perpetrators: they were all hanged. That experience got me to musing over how much I was susceptible to weirdly and quickly varying attitudes, how my values could shift radically in just a short time, from the setting of one book down and the opening of another. Was my value system really that fragile and unstable? I wondered if this phenomenon was true of others, so I decided to try an experiment.

I do not recall the details of my mode of presentation, only that I alternated between summarizing various parts of each book and interpolating quotes here and there. I didn’t realize how long it was. I guess the chaplain felt the room was getting stuffy, for while I was reading he got up, went to a window and raised it. Shortly afterwards, one man, only a few years older than I was, interrupted me by asking, “Are we going to get a chance to discuss this? It sounds like a bunch of morbidity to me.” Another fellow murmured something about people who “should have gone to college”. I don’t remember how I responded or even that I did; I felt deflated and defeated; my lack of response was way too predictive of future encounters; I probably just said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The whole episode might have turned out better if I had begun the presentation with an explanation that I was conducting a psychological experiment; but, on the other hand, to have done so would probably have compromised the validity of the result.

When no succeeding review was announced, I went to the chaplain and asked him what was up. He replied that he had discontinued the book review sessions because too few people were participating.

During all my life since then I have from time to time pondered how we can act decisively in murky situations and dilemmas when our ideas and feelings react against each other. Just what is the “tipping point”, as it has come to be nominated?


For more commentary on this topic, see my Dec. 15, 2013, post “To Be Or…Catastrophe!”


Thank you for visiting my blog, which I am dropping for art and health’s sake. I will leave it in cyberspace for anyone who might want to browse through the 43 months of archives.



Fragile Civilisation

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I have been viewing again some DVDs about the course of Western Europe’s cultural history since the fall of the Roman Empire; I bought the set a year ago. They constitute the 13-part documentary titled Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, which was produced by BBC-2 back in 1969. While still a graduate student at SMU, I enjoyed the series when it came to the U.S. the following year. The personable, humorous and brilliant Kenneth Clark immediately became my newest hero.

My description of  this Scotsman, Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), contains the adjective “humorous”, but I don’t mean by that that he was a comedian or even that the primary tone of Civilisation is light-hearted: it is in fact often melancholy, even at times somberly prophetic, for the theme of the narrative is how the trend of civilisation in Europe has not been an unswervingly upward slant but has declined several times since 476 C.E. (the generally accepted date of Rome’s conquest by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer) and has even slipped into darkness once for several hundred years. Nonetheless, Clark’s comments frequently are interlarded with understated wit, a quality which has characterized many British intellectuals over the centuries.

But wry wit is not my theme: rather I want to align myself with Clark’s emotional concern about the impending fate of the West today—Europe’s of course but America’s as well. During at least two of his presentations (or lectures, if you prefer), Clark alludes to the very possible extinction of what he chose to call today’s “civilisation”. (This spelling, by the way, is not a typographical error; the British spell “civilisation” with an “s” while we in the United States spell it with a “z”; I have elected to employ the British spelling throughout this essay.) Without being specific, Clark alludes to recent events as portents of another dip in humanity’s cultural development. I still don’t know what he could be referring to: the Cold War? modern art? mechanization? materialism? political corruption? Here and there in the episodes he mentions all those and other fault-lines, as well as the constant, congenital “fragility of civilisation”. But if there is any single danger to current civilisation that he considers our immediate nemesis, I am not certain which it is.

Early in the first episode of Civilisation, Clark conceded that he couldn’t define civilisation…“yet”. Then, playing on the cliché about the philistine who at first demurs when asked what to him is “fine art”, Clark adds “…but I know it when I see it.” He later makes the same remark about “barbarism”. Soon thereafter, however, he lists several attributes of his subject: “intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality”. Still further on in the series, Clark adds stability, confidence, prosperity, order, and broad participation in society. And even further on, Clark describes a civilised society as “intelligent, creative, orderly, and compassionate”; but these latter qualities are not simply what create civilisation, they are also what are necessary to sustain it. Nomadic peoples, such as the Vikings for instance, although supremely confident and adventuresome, could not develop a civilisation, according to Clark’s definition, because they were unstable and saw no value in maintaining anything other than their tools for survival: in the case of the Vikings, their ingenious ships. And the highly cultivated society of 17th century France could not last because the portion of the population which participated in it was too small.

I perhaps should mention “light”, since Clark asserted that light “can be seen as the symbol of civilisation.”  He is referring to the light of reason, education and accumulated knowledge as well as to the light that was so typical of Dutch painting during the 17th century and to the light studies in 19th century French Impressionism. His appreciation of light is almost mystical.

Although Clark does not name any singular major threat that confronted mid-20th century Western Europe, he does specify what caused the luster of previous cultures to fade: fear of war, plague and the supernatural; boredom; exhaustion; and insularity.

At the end of Clark’s cultural tour he confesses himself to be a “stick-in-the mud”, by which he means that he holds onto several values and beliefs which have been abandoned by some other modern intellectuals. Peace, he says, is preferable to violence, and knowledge is preferable to ignorance. He adds that he cherishes courtesy and compassion. And above all he advocates for the recognition that we humans are a part of Nature’s big picture, not separate from it, and that we should view other animals as our brothers and sisters, much as Saint Francis of Assisi did.

Now, to the present. I have my own personal issues with which to cope, issues that no one other than I can resolve. But I also share in many, and in some ways starker, issues that confront Americans as a whole and others that are faced by everyone on this planet, whether they are aware of them or not. What makes these problems seem especially intractable is that they are typified by paradoxes and dilemmas.

Recently, for instance, I heard an interview on National Public Radio in which the interviewee was author of a book about the psychological disturbances that afflict many military service people when they return home from places like Viet Nam and the Middle East. These disturbances we have classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. The author, who is himself a veteran of the Iraq conflict, claimed, however, that that classification is inaccurate, at least in his case. He said that the problem evolved not from having been in a combat situation but from leaving it. Coming home to a “stable” environment had made him feel marooned, so to speak. On the battle field he had been in the company of men who depended on each other every second for their survival; when he got home, he felt isolated because of the separateness and indifference he saw all around him. In another NPR interview, a woman who had survived the horrors of the ethnic war in Bosnia during the 1990’s said she was ashamed to admit it, but she now yearns for those days because people cared for each other at a very deep level. During that same interview, mention was made of how the murder and suicide rates in New York City steeply declined immediately after 9/11.

I cannot accept the notion that the cohesion of society—of civilisation—depends upon war and other calamities.

For any of you who are interested, you can view Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View documentary on YouTube…at least as of May 29, 2016.




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