"A Deep, Lasting Defeatism Of The Real"
"And if [Andre] Breton was right in his First Manifesto when he linked Surrealism essentially with defeatism, this was only half the story, for it was not just a question of temporary political defeatism but of a deep, lasting defeatism in respect of man, of thought, of love and of the totality of the real."
– Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life (vol. 1)
In what direction does an intelligent and cultivated person turn in a world that has been banalized and desacralized, in which the highest social aspiration is merely “to get a living,” and resistance to all forms of cultural dross runs rather low?
In The Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre tells us that the unease and dissatisfaction that young, bright minds feel are usually only assuaged "by something strange, bizarre or extraordinary." But the turn to the strange or extraordinary neither resurrects the lost world of meaning nor attenuates the forces of spiritual dissolution. Every protest against established norms runs the risk eventually of incorporating what was most odious in them. And this is how Lefebvre felt about the counter-cultural currents of his time: "Under cover of the sublime and the superhuman, all manner of dehumanization is being smuggled in. Under cover of purity and 'pure' beauty, we are being invaded by impurity and ugliness..."
As he sees it, there once existed a world that spoke to reflective thought and the creative imagination. A world that held a certain mystery and mystical dimension, that was “serious, deep, cosmic.” It faded away gradually, and the loss was felt particularly by “sensitive, lucid, cultivated” persons whose “heart needs novel thrills” and whose mind requires stimulation. How such a world might be recovered, if at all, and whether reflective intelligence can hold up in ever more inhospitable environs are open questions. Lefebvre believed philosophy has always been, and should remain, “an indirect criticism of life,” and that the critique of the quotidian “must clear the way for a genuine humanism, for a humanism which believes in the human because it knows it.”
The excerpts below have been taken from the Verso edition of The Critique of Everyday Life (2008), vol. 1, trans. by John Moore, pp. 117, 119, 121-123. The subheads are not in the original text.
Demotion of the Sacred & Mystical Aspects of Life
“The mysterious, the sacred and the diabolical, magic, ritual, the mystical -- at first all of these were lived with intensity. They were part of the real lives of human beings -- thoroughly authentic, affective and passionate forces. Then, with the appearance and development of rationality, they were doubly modified, along with their relationship to everyday life.
(a) Demotion -- Gradually ritual becomes gestural. The diabolical becomes shameful, ugly. Myth becomes legend, tale, story, fable, anecdote, etc. Finally, the marvellous and the supernatural fall inevitably to the level of weird and the bizarre.
(b) Internal transformation and displacement -- Everything that once represented an affective, immediate and primitive relationship between man and the world -- everything that was serious, deep, cosmic -- is displaced and sooner or later gradually enters the domain of play, or art, or just simply becomes amusing or ironic verbalization.
This internal transformation takes place at the same time as the 'demotion' mentioned above. It is inseparable from it. Thus as man develops and becomes rational, the old, primitive irrationality maintains its connections with his everyday life...”
A Shoddy Version of the Mysterious
“The bizarre is a shoddy version of the mysterious from which the mystery has disappeared. Oh, women with strange faces, portraits and poems with weird imagery, peculiar objects, all you prove is that there is no more ‘feminine mystery’, that mystery has disappeared from our world, that it has degenerated into something public, that it is a game, an art-form, that it has lost its ancient glamour founded on terror and wild hope, that it has become mere journalism, mere advertising, mere fashion, a music-hall turn, an exhibit…”
Symptoms of Intellectuals’ Unease
“...A perpetual expectation of something extraordinary, an ever-disappointed and ever-rekindled hope, in other words a dissatisfaction which seeps into the humblest details of day-to-day existence.
How can we fail to believe in the marvellous, the strange, the bizarre, when there are people who lead marvellous (or seemingly marvellous) lives full of departures and incessant changes of scenery, lives which we see carefully reflected in the cinema and the theatre and novels?
-- when there are technical processes which bring things which are distant and inaccessible to our senses near to us, revealing the astounding shapes of crystals, organs and organisms, nebulae and molecules (so that to our unprepared senses the realest things seem unreal or 'surreal'...) ?
-- when we know that there are so many beautiful, idle women in the world whose only aim in life is pleasure and the quest for novel experiences; so that each time the adolescent or the young poet hears a knock on the door, his heart beats faster, and if the telephone rings, he rushes to answer it in the belief that the miracle is about to happen, that at last that beautiful, unique, absolute, mysterious woman (who with a bit of luck may be rich and a virgin to boot) is about to appear...(for many confirmed idealists betray a very real tendency towards parasitism or pimping...) ?
“Everything -- life, science, both the ideal and the idea of love, not to mention that arch-sorcerer of the Western world, money -- conspires to instil in the sensitive, lucid, cultivated young man with a gift for 'belles lettres' a feeling of unease and dissatisfaction which can only be assuaged by something strange, bizarre or extraordinary. If we add to this the fact that his nerves and senses require sudden shocks, that his heart needs novel thrills -- that in his unbalanced mind each object of thought must be defined through a kind of nervous and sensorial spasm, that a certain laziness or even a revulsion towards work (so clearly, so brutally expressed by Rimbaud and the Surrealists) prevents him from broaching any investigation which might compromise his convictions, and confirms him in his decision to stick with a facile and immediately-saleable re-hash of ancient mysteries -- then we will have a more than adequate explanation of the cult of the bizarre and its success...
“[Charles Baudelaire]...wrote in his notebooks: 'Even as a child I felt two conflicting sensations in my heart: the horror of life and the ecstacy of life.' He simply wanted to line life with another, truer life, the life of the 'soul'. He wanted to live through the mind, giving the real world a lining of enigmas, strangeness, correspondences, with every color, every sound, every taste and every perfume concealing a host of perceptible and tangible meanings. He was one of the first...to try to reanimate the old category of mystery, but on the level to which it had declined, on the level of the perceptible and the everyday. So he compromised this world and this life even more effectively than any of the metaphysicians, theologians and mystics who were seeking 'another life' to replace the everyday; the only thing that interested him, seduced him, fascinated him, was the lining. (Only symbols, only the mind, and they alone, can 'fascinate' and 'seduce', for, as opposed to any feelings based upon man's power, they weaken man and then exploit that weakness, drawing him down into a vertiginous chasm of mental confusion.)
“Since Baudelaire, the world turned inside out has been deemed better than the world the right way up. Its hinterland is no longer the realm of Platonic Ideas, which at least left life, matter and nature to run along according to their own movements, governing them from on high, from 'Eternity'. Baudelaire's satanism has brought this hinterland into the world like a supplementary 'dimension'…like a 'spiritual dimension'. In other words, he has put the cat among the pigeons, the maggot in the fruit, disgust in desire, filth in purity; and not as stimulants, but as poisons, all mixed together in an unspeakable confusion.
“Under cover of the sublime and the superhuman, all manner of dehumanization is being smuggled in. Under cover of purity and 'pure' beauty, we are being invaded by impurity and ugliness...”