Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The new malady of culture

This absorption in self, or the new malady of culture, of which much is written nowadays, has been common with all men who have not worked with their bodies. The brain is only an organ for imparting movement to the muscles. Now when in a civilised man the brain cannot act upon the muscles, nor bring its power into play, there results a disturbance of equilibrium.

The brain begins to dream; too full of juices which cannot be absorbed by muscular activity, it converts them involuntarily into systems, into thought-combinations, into the hallucinations which haunt painters, sculptors and poets. If no outlet can be found, there follows stagnation, violent outbreaks, depression, and at last madness.

Schools which are often vestibules for asylums, have recourse to gymnastics, but with what result? There is no connection between the pupil's cerebral activity and the muscular activity called into play by gymnastics; the latter is only directed by another's will through the word of command.

August Strindberg - The Growth of a Soul (1913)

A modern problem is plainly visible through Strindberg’s older perspective. We evolved to reproduce, make tools, adapt to a wide range of environmental niches, assess risks, alter strategies and tactics accordingly. All this is intimately linked with muscular activity of one form or another.

To a greater and greater degree we are now influenced by social realities rather than older physical realities which still require significant muscular activity. Some people rarely go outside in winter because they no longer need to. Yet this avoidance of physical stimuli and muscular activity is comparatively recent, even more so in Strindberg's time.

Unfortunately we may not have evolved a corresponding ability to sit around thinking up useful abstractions. Presumably this is why we aren’t much good at it. In which case, if we base our society and economy on the intellectual fruits of sitting around we are not likely to build a saner and more rationally reflective world.

Ho hum – that’s enough blogging for now. It’s time to get up off my backside and make the tea.


Andrew Zalotocky said...

If you take Strindberg's argument seriously then it's not enough to get up and make the tea. You need to get up and plant the tea. Go out into the fields and labour mightily with your bare hands to raise a crop of tea, then burn it all and start again to ensure that you are never troubled by "juices which cannot be absorbed by muscular activity". Alternatively, we might dismiss Strindberg's claim as the kind of romanticisation of manual labour which only comes from people who don't have to do it. People who are actually obliged to work "with their bodies" to make a living tend to be quite keen on things that will make it less painful and exhausting, even if it means risking "a disturbance of equilibrium".

Demetrius said...

Earl Grey or Assam, I hope. Some stronger juices later, although not Strindberg.

A K Haart said...

Andrew - it may have been a romantic view of manual labour, but with Strindberg being the man he was there were probably other aspects too. For example, aristocratic women who lived their lives in luxurious houses, hotels and modes of transport, who never even brushed their own hair. Theirs would be isolation not only from manual labour, but from contact with many of the most mundane physical realities of daily life.

Demetrius - Assam in the evening, maybe Earl Grey too. Or port.