Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 4)

John Whitehead in an article noted:

Bacon, however, clearly expressed his atheistic pessimism: “Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without purpose, other than of his own choosing.” On another occasion, he remarked: “We are born and we die and there’s nothing else. We’re just part of animal life.”

Thus, Bacon, in terms of humanity and the supernatural, reached not only a position of unbelief but of despair. His paintings express modern humanity’s condition: dehumanized man dispossessed of any durable paradise.

________________________

I first read about Francis Bacon in a book written by Francis Schaeffer. I was interested in looking into his art. His art really shows where modern man has come to the place of desperation since modern man has embraced the closed system that does not include God. What is left for man but what time and chance can bring. Bacon admitted that he was very depressed about man’s future and it comes out in his paintings.

I wish he would have read the work of Francis Schaeffer. I have posted links to Schaeffer’s works below.

Photograph of Bacon taken by John Deakin for Vogue, 1962

The Striptease of Humanism

This, then, is “the striptease of humanism,” a gathering crisis of optimism, an escape from reason, a surfacing of subterranean pessimism. Understanding it as the daily climate of our time, we can now analyze more closely certain features of its arrival and of its permanent residue.

First, there is the strong element of surprise. For any who had read Nietzsche, this should not have been so but in fact it was. In 1929 Freud remarked on this in Civilization and Its Discontents: “Man has, as it were, become a prosthetic god. . . . Future ages . . . will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But . . . present day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.”33 In 1951 Camus felt it still more keenly: “During the last century, man cast off the fetters of religion. Hardly was he free, however, when he created new and utterly intolerable chains. . . . The kingdom of grace has been conquered, but the kingdom of justice is crumbling too. Europe is dying of this deception.”34

The situation is pregnant with irony: There is a crisis of disbelief as well as a crisis of belief. Some religious thinkers may be endlessly reporting the death of God (almost as their contemporary creedal confession), but the fact no longer seems heroic to the perceptive atheist. If the city of God has been razed, who is in need of a home now? Who feels the chill most keenly?

A second feature is the irreversibility of the exposure of humanism. It would be comforting to regard the present pessimism as a cycle, or swing of the pendulum, but there are various reasons why we cannot. For one thing there are new factors which prevent a reversal. Here we come to the difference between Oswald Spengler and Max Weber. Spengler thought the decline of the West was essentially what had happened before. Weber held that what was occurring had never happened before. It was different because, although there were similar symptoms, the “disenchantment of the world” by technology was new. So the situation was irreversible. 

These elements of surprise and irreversibility were two features of the arrival of the crisis, but of even greater importance are the various symptomatic features of its continuing presence. We shall now examine these. The key to the understanding of each of them is that they stem from the humanist’s lack of a basis, the loss of center, the death of absolutes.

Alienation

The first symptom is alienation which occurs when the lack of basis is actually seen, felt or experienced. Whenever a man is not fulfilled by his own view of himself, his society or his environment, then he is at odds with himself and feels estranged, alienated and called in question. Optimistic humanism, lacking sufficient basis for the full range of humanness, also lacks sufficient balance, and alienation is inescapable when this is so. First of all this is true today of metaphysical alienation. Denying the optimistic implications of Darwinism, Nietzsche pointed to man’s “ontological predicament”: “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss.”49 Caught between the all-too-human and the superhuman, man, if he is not to despair, must stretch across an unbridgeable chasm to the revalued ideals of the overman. Nietzsche himself felt mocked, even in madness, by this impossible struggle. As all-too-human he knew only anguish, terror, loneliness, desperation, disgust, “the great seasickness” of the world without God.

This last phrase was picked up by Sartre in his first novel Nausea, a classic of existentialism. Walking in the city park one day, Roquentin was overcome by the nausea of the meaninglessness of life. Looking around him, he concluded, “Every existent is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”50 He was forced to the unhappy conclusion that the key to life is its fundamental absurdity. Man as man has to reach towards being God in order to fulfill his aspirations, yet with God dead and the world as it is these aspirations are limitations cast back in his face as an absurdity. Sartre’s reluctant conclusion is that “man is a useless passion.”51

The drastic extremity of this is well portrayed in the drama of Samuel Beckett, whose Parisian home and early research in Marcel Proust’s philosophy of time bring him close to the thought world of existentialism. In Waiting for Godot, Godot’s failure to arrive reduces all of life to the level of irrational absurdity.52 In Krapp’s Last Tape, the personality of the old man is completely desiccated by the sequential flow of time shattering his identity into fragments.53 Beckett’s ultimate in economic starkness is Breath, thirty seconds in duration, with no actors nor dialogue nor any props on the stage except miscellaneous rubbish; the whole script is the sigh of human life from a baby’s cry to a man’s last gasp before the grave.

The same metaphysical alienation, expressed in terms of the counter culture, is brilliantly distilled in Yoko Ono’s single line poems in Grapefruit.54All of them are capsules of nihilism, variations on a theme of meaninglessness. “Map Piece” reads, “Draw a map to get lost.” Another called “Lighting Piece” runs, “Light a match and watch it till it goes out.” These are the poetic counterpoint to Breath.

The same sense of alienation can be heard in many expressions of protest chafing at the constricting philosophies and psychologies dominant today. Paul Simon cries out in “Patterns” against the reductionism of determinism that conceives of man as a rat in a cage.55

Jean Luc Godard says much the same in his film La Chinoise.56When love is meaningful, to say “I don’t love you” is tragic, but when love is reduced to the chemistry of the color of the eye or the preference of the sweater color, to say “I don’t love you” is to say almost nothing.

Metaphysical alienation is also seen in the attempt to escape from nihilism through gamesmanship. Whether the games are crass, like the money or success games, or sophisticated and esoteric, like aesthetics or meditation techniques, they are only games created to escape the meaninglessness. Speaking as an artist, Francis Bacon says that man now realizes that he is an accident, a completely futile being and that he can attempt to beguile himself only for a time. Art has become a game by which man distracts himself.57

The heightened tragedy of the contemporary situation is that this is being confirmed, cemented and compounded by a newly felt sociological alienation. This alienation stems partly from the disjointedness of society, but even more from the estrangement induced by a modern technological environment in which men feel unfulfilled, depersonalized, dehumanized and condemned to grow up absurd. Jacques Ellul describes this graphically: “The human being was made to breathe the good air of nature, but what he breathes is an obscure compound of acids and coal tars. He was created for a living environment, but he dwells in a lunar world of stone, cement, asphalt, glass, cast iron and steel. The trees wilt and blanch among sterile and stone facades. Cats and dogs disappear little by little in the city, going the way of the horse. Only rats and men remain to populate a dead world.”58 Man is ill at ease in this environment and the tension demanded of him weighs heavily on his time and nerves, his life and being. If he tries to escape, he is drawn towards an entertainment world of dreams, and if he complies, he falls into a life of crowded, organized routine in which to conform is to feel the malaise of maladjustment.

This alienation, metaphysical and environmental, is an inescapable consequence of humanism and symptomatic of its lack of a basis, making man unfulfillable on the basis of his own views of himself….. 

Modern humanism also refuses to touch the danger points, to face the logic of its own premises. It prefers to live in intellectual inconsistency. In The Disinherited Mind Erich Heller says, “In Kafka we have before us the modern mind, seemingly self-sufficient, intelligent, sceptical, ironical, splendidly trained for the great game of pretending that the world it comprehends in sterilized sobriety is the only and ultimate reality there is — yet a mind living in sin with the soul of Abraham. Thus he knows two things at once, and both with equal assurance; that there is no God, and that there must be God.”83

Kafka was not unique. Nietzsche himself, for all his scorn, made his leap of faith. He asserts that any attempt to understand the universe is prompted by man’s will to power but fails to see that his own conception of the will to power must then be admitted by him to be a creation of his will to power. What to Kafka was a weakness is now a disease of almost epidemic proportions. Erich Fromm ponders, “In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead, in the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead,”84 but Fromm shies away from exploring the connection between the two. R. D. Laing poses the alternative, “Deus absconditus. Or we have absconded,”85 but his vision of the divine is Eastern, not Christian, and his use of Luther’s concept is merely rhetorical.

Thus optimistic humanism is currently in the throes of a gathering crisis. But we dare not let this negate the humanness of its ideals. What is needed is a stronger humanism, not a weaker one. We need a concern for humanness that has a basis for its ideals and the possibility of their substantial realization.

There are several requirements which any contending solution must satisfy. First, it must provide a basis that will define and demonstrate the individuality of man as human. Here the Eastern conceptions of man with their essential negation of the value of man in this life, the communist subordination of the individual to the state, and the post-Christian failure of Western man to resist the trends of dehumanization point to answers which do not satisfy this first requirement.

Second, it must provide a basis for the fulfillment of an individual’s aspirations. The Eastern religions, communism and humanism again fall short for similar reasons. So also do determinism and existentialism.

Third, it must provide a basis for the substantial healing of man’s alienations in terms of an individual’s becoming more fully himself. Many views falter here.

Fourth, it must provide a basis for community, combining social unity and diversity, and it must avoid the chaos of relativism or the swing to control seen in many modern states and intentional communes.

These together must provide a basis for defining and demonstrating a humanness sufficiently robust to be an anchor against the dehumanization coming from social disruption and the fear of global destruction.

A Third Way is obviously required — one which speaks to the basic situation of humanity, both in individuality and in community. It must provide an answer to existentialism and a fulfillment to optimistic humanism. But this is still to run ahead of ourselves.

With the erosion of the Christian culture and the crisis of humanism, the direction of Western culture is uncertain. Will we see a desperate vacuum from which nihilism will rise? Will we lurch on uneasily to a new technological barbarism? Will a novel mysticism turn the West into the East? Or will the slow disintegration of Western culture herald a decline of power, until the egoism of Western culture is judged by the hammer of the Soviets?

Only the future will show. Curiously, the recent pre-occupation with “the end of ideology” has given rise to a new ideology — futurology. Here evolutionary optimistic humanism has its last chance. If, searching into his future, man finds grounds for believing in himself and his ability to control his future, then secular humanism may become solvent again. This quest forms the story of our next chapter.

Notes

  • Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 125, in The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), p. 96; C. G. Jung. “Epilogue,” Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Routledge Books, 1933); Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 110; Federico Fellini, Fellini’s Satyricon, ed. Darlo Zanelli, trans. Eugene Walters and John Matthews (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), p. 269.
  • Quoted in Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (London: John Murray Ltd., 1971), p. 104.
  • Quoted in ibid., p. 101.
  • Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1966), p. 44.
  • Ibid.,p.417.
  • Michael Harrington, The Accidental Century (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 31.
  • Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (New York: Mentor Books, 1951).
  • Julian Huxley, ed., The Humanist Frame (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1961), p. 44.
  • Ibid.,p.7.
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne, “Hymn of Man.”
  • J. Huxley, p. 6.
  • Ibid., p. 26.
  • Harrington, p. 35.
  • Heinrich Heine, quoted in WaIter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), p. 375.
  • Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 1-2, quoted in Kaufmann, p. 103.
  • C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (London: Geoffrey Bles Ltd., 1967), p. 82.
  • Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 251.
  • lbid., p.21.
  • Letter of Aldous Huxley to Sibylle Bedford quoted in Time, May 4, 1970.
  • J. R. Platt, The Step to Man (New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1966), p. 196.
  • Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death (London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1968), p. 267.
  • See discussion in Nigel Calder, Technopolis (London: MacGibbon & Kee Ltd., 1969), pp. 98-99.
  • Arnold Toynbee, “Changing Attitudes towards Death in the Modern Western World” in Arnold Toynbee and others, Man’s Concern with Death (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1968), p. 125.
  • Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1967), p. 15.
  • Viktor E. Frankl, “Reductionism and Nihilism” in Beyond Reductionism, ed. Arthur Koestler and J. R. Smythies (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1969), p. 398.
  • Mortimer J. Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (London: Holt, Rinehart & Winston Ltd., 1967).
  • Quoted in T. M. Kitwood, What Is Human? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1970), p. 49.
  • Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, IV, 1, as quoted in Kaufmann, pp. 83-84.
  • Harrington, p. 26.
  • Koestler, p. 313.
  • Fanon, pp. 251-52.
  • Harrington, p. 36.
  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, Standard Works of Freud, 21 (London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1961), p. 91-92.
  • Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), pp. 243-44.
  • Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 125.
  • Quoted in Gay, p. 65.
  • Quoted in Kitwood, p. 54.
  • Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 75.
  • Nietzsche, p. 409.
  • Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, I, 11, in The Portable Nietzsche, p. 160.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed (New York: Signet Classics, 1962), pp. 384-85.
  • Camus, The Rebel, p. 199.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, Inc., 1968), p. 733.
  • Quoted in Camus, The Rebel, p. 58.
  • Quoted in ibid., p. 62.
  • Quoted in ibid.
  • Quoted in ibid.
  • Heller, p. 76.
  • Nietzsche, Zarathustra’s Prologue, 4, in The Portable Nietzsche, p. 126.
  • Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 191.
  • Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 566.
  • Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1956).
  • Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1958).
  • Yoko Ono, Grapefruit (London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1970).
  • Paul Simon, The Paul Simon Songbook, C.B.S. 62579.
  • Jean Luc Godard, La Chinoise, filmed 1967.
  • Quoted in H. R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1970), p. 174.
  • Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), p.321.
  • Chores and Roy Medvedev, A Question of Madness (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
  • “Psychoadaptation, or How to Handle Dissenters,” Time,September 27, 1971, p. 45.
  • lbid., p.44.
  • Quoted in Harrison Salisbury, “Introduction,” The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. ix.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (New York: Bantam Books, 1958), p. 71.
  • Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 123.
  • Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Routledge Books, 1956).
  • R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 24.
  • Ibid., p.24.
  • David Cooper, ed., The Dialectics of Liberation (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968).
  • Malcolm Muggeridge, Tread Softly for You Tread on My Jokes (Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.), p. 28.
  • Ibid., p. 29.
  • Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs (Glasgow: Fontana, 1970), p. 70.
  • Ibid., p. 44.
  • Ibid., p. 339.
  • Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, trans. Anna Bostock (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963).
  • Lewis Feuer, “What Is Alienation? The Career of a Concept,” New Politics, Spring 1962, pp. 116-34.
  • Fischer, p. 80.
  • Erich Frornm, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1961).
  • Hermann Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 4 vols. (Nutley, N.J.: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1957); The Twilight of Western Thought (Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1960).
  • Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1968); Escape from Reason(Downers Grove, III.: InterVarsity Press, 1968).
  • J. A. Rushdoony, “Preface,” Dooyeweerd, The Twilight of Western Thought, p. 9.
  • Camus, The Rebel, p. 16.
  • Nietzsche in a letter to Gersdorff, November 7, 1970, quoted in Erich Heller, p. 70.
  • Ibid., p.181.
  • Fromm, Sane Society, p. 360.
  • Laing, The Politics of Experience, p. 118.

Author

Os Guinness is an Englishman born in China during the war with Japan and educated at the University of London. He has traveled widely in the East and lectured to student groups in Europe, the United States and Canada. His major work was with Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland.

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