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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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Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 3)

I first read about Bacon in a book by Francis Schaeffer.

John Whitehead in an article noted:

Bacon’s work epitomizes the spirit of twentieth century man—a grasping for meaning and dignity within an environment of dehumanization and meaninglessness. He once said: “Nietzsche forecast our future for us—he was the Cassandra of the nineteenth century—he told us it’s all so meaningless we might as well be extraordinary.”

____________

Below is a portion of an article by Os Guinness

“I come too early. My time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way.” Nietzsche“To be a man means to reach toward being God.” Jean Paul Sartre“In seeking to become angels we may become less than men.” Pascal“True civilization does not lie in gas, nor in steam, nor in turntables. It lies in the reduction of the traces of original sin.” Baudelaire“It is becoming more and more obvious, that it is not starvation, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is mankind’s greatest danger.” Carl Jung“It is in our hearts that the evil lies, and it is from our hearts that it must be plucked Out.” Bertrand Russell“Oh great gods, how far he lies from his destination!” Fillini, Fellini’s Satyricon1


Western culture is marked at the present moment by a distinct slowing of momentum, or perhaps, more accurately, by a decline in purposefulness and an increase in cultural introspection. This temporary lull, this vacuum in thought and effective action, has been created by the convergence of three cultural trends, each emphasizing a loss of direction. The first is the erosion of the Christian basis of Western culture, an erosion with deep historical causes and clearly visible results. The second is the failure of optimistic humanism to provide an effective alternative in the leadership of the post-Christian culture. And the third is the failure of our generation’s counter culture to demonstrate a credible alternative to either of the other two — Western Christianity and humanism.

The convergence of these three factors in the late sixties marks this period as especially important. What is at stake is nothing less than the direction of Western man. Only a few years ago the dismissal of Christianity was held to be a prerequisite for cultural advance. The decline of Christianity thus represented a cure for man’s problems, not a cause. So with the dawning of optimistic humanism the decline of Christianity was welcomed. Its adherents would be the only losers.

But that was yesterday. And contemporary yesterdays have a habit of suddenly seeming a hundred years ago. Today the cultural memory of traditional values hangs precariously like late autumn leaves, and in the new wintry bleakness optimism itself is greying. Now it appears that all of Western culture may be the loser.

My purpose is first to examine humanism, partially as a movement in itself but even more as a backdrop against which to appreciate the need for an alternative; then to chart the alternative offered by the counter culture with all its kaleidescopic variety; and finally, to present a third way as a more viable option in the light of man’s current situation. The weaknesses in both humanism and the counter culture are pointed out, not to negate much that has been extremely sensitive and intensely human, but to show the inevitability of their failures. The critique at least serves to illustrate certain mistakes that must not be repeated, and it highlights important questions and dilemmas with which further alternatives must grapple.

A third way is desperately necessary because the present options are growing more obviously unacceptable. And, in fact, there is a Third Way — one which is becoming increasingly welcome to a large number of sensitive searchers and free-spirited individuals who make up a major part of those dissatisfied with things as they are. This Third Way holds the promise of realism without despair, involvement without frustration, hope without romanticism. It combines a concern for humanness with intellectual integrity, a love of truth with a love of beauty, conviction with compassion and deep spirituality. But this is running ahead.

The Surfacing of Pessimism

Now we can see an important point more clearly. Optimistic humanism was only one stream of secular humanism. Its reverse was pessimistic humanism, and if the optimism was characteristically strong in academic circles, it is now evident that pessimism was more prevalent in the wider reality of life. Pessimistic humanism was always there, like a subterranean stream, murky in its depths and dark in its apprehension of dilemmas. It is this subterranean stream that is now threatening to surface and usurp the dignity and dominance of optimistic humanism.

Again we must go back in history to realize the full importance of this surfacing pessimism. Its genius was to see that behind the apparent stability of the nineteenth-century world in which modern humanism was born stood a different reality. Both Nietzsche and Kirkegaard were men who lived in passionate revolt against the smugness of the nineteenth century, particularly against the cheapness of its religious faith and the brash confidence of its secular reasoning, or generally against its shallow optimism, wordy idealism and tendency to conform. Such a smug world was not just false but dangerously foolish, if the true nature of reality lay elsewhere.

It is amazing that this subterranean pessimism was not taken more seriously earlier. But it was derided as the “Devil’s Party” — the poets, philosophers and prophets of chaos and catastrophe — and all too easy to dismiss.13 Some were ignored. Their repeated warnings were simply relegated to the status of cultural myth having only an innocuous respectability. In 1832 Hemrich Heine had said, “Do you hear the little bell tinkle? Kneel down — one brings the sacraments for a dying God.”14 Nietzsche’s later cry of the death of God and his searching diagnosis (“Everything lacks meaning. What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The goal is lacking; the answer is lacking to our ‘Why?’”)15 were not taken seriously either. After all, wasn’t Heine a poet, and wasn’t Nietzsche later deranged?

Other warnings were dismissed as only to be expected from the theory or temperament of their particular authors. Repeatedly in the 1930s, George Orwell depicted Western intellectuals as men who in blithe ignorance were sawing off the very branch on which they were sitting. Malcolm Muggeridge in his articles lanced open the “death wish of liberalism.” C. S. Lewis carefully made his exposures in “The Funeral of a Great Myth.”16 But the serious disquiet of Orwell, the humorous if testy honesty of Muggeridge and the gentle clarity and utter reasonableness of C. S. Lewis were before their time. They were predictable. They were ignored.

But the rising tide of disquiet cannot now be ignored. It is becoming the accepted mood of much recent judgment, as a hundred illustrations could quickly show. Writing in 1961 specifically on problems of Western culture, Frantz Fanon mocked, “Look at them today, swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.”17 In the same context, Jean Paul Sartre challenged, “Let us look at ourselves if we can bear to, and see what is becoming of us. First we must face that unexpected revelation, the strip tease of our humanism.”18 These two men could easily be dismissed as pessimistic, prejudiced politically and philosophically, but the disquiet does not stop there. Coming closer to the heart of humanism and speaking almost as an heir to a distinguished humanist house, Aldous Huxley described himself this way: “I was born wandering between two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born, and have made in a curious way the worst of both.”19 From the world of science John Rader Platt, the American biophysicist, said, “The world has now become too dangerous for anything less than Utopia.”20 Norman O. Brown, a man famous for the lyrical romanticism of his visions, admitted, “Today even the survival of humanity is a utopian hope.”21

There can be no stable equilibrium between optimism and pessimism but only an uneasy oscillation between the two. Optimistic humanism is strong in its stress on the aspirations of man but weak in its understanding of his aberrations. Accordingly, it lacks a base for the fulfillment of the former and its solutions to the latter are deficient; thus its ultimate optimism is eternally romantic. Pessimistic humanism, on the other hand, insists on the absurdity of man’s aspirations and speaks to the heart of his aberrations, but the price of its realism is the constant pull toward despair. This clear contrast throws further light on the current crisis.

Four Pillars of Optimistic Humanism

Optimistic humanism is being exposed as idealism without sufficient ideals. More accurately, its ideals are impossible to attain without a sufficient basis in truth, and this is just what its rationalistic premises are unable to provide. This is the key weakness of each of the four central pillars of optimistic humanism.

The first pillar is the belief in reason. Here optimistic humanism is forced to its initial leap of faith… Much of what was called reasoning is now more properly called rationalizing.

Modern philosophy also has reduced the pretentions of reason. For man, speaking from a finite reference point without divine revelation, to claim to have found a “universal” is not just to be mistaken. The claim itself is meaningless. For most modern men, objectivity, universals or absolutes are in a realm beyond the scope of reason; in this realm there is only the existential, non-rational, subjective understanding of truth.

Both psychology and philosophy have thus clipped the proud wings of rationalism and the unlimited usefulness of reason by itself. By rationalism I do not mean “rationalism” as opposed to “empiricism” but rather the hidden premise common to both — the humanist’s leap of faith in which the critical faculty of reason is tacitly made into an absolute and used as a super-tool to marshal particulars and claim meaning which in fact is proper only to the world of universals.

The second pillar is the belief in progress. The orientation toward the future introduced into Western culture by Christian linear teleology was secularized by the Enlightenment. Ostensibly it had been given objective scientific support by the evolutionary theory. It was widely believed that nature was marching forward inevitably to higher and higher views of life (as expressed, for instance, in the philosophy of Herbert Spencer). But this is now being drastically undermined. Many point to evidence of an evolutionary crisis, somewhat tarnishing the comfortable image of inevitable progress with man at the center of the stage controlling his own evolution. Some even predict the extinction of the human species.

The third pillar is the belief in science as the guide to human progress and the provider of an alternative to both religion and morals. If “evolution is good,” then evolution must be allowed to proceed and the very process of change becomes absolutized.

The fourth pillar is the belief in the self-sufficiency of man. A persistent erosion of man’s view of himself is occurring. The fact that man has made so many significant scientific discoveries points strongly to the significance of man, yet the content of these same scientific discoveries underscores his insignificance. Man finds himself dwarfed bodily by the vast stretches of space and belittled temporally by the long reaches of time. Humanists are caught in a strange dilemma. If they affirm the greatness of man, it is only at the expense of ignoring his aberrations. If they regard human aberrations seriously, they have to escape the dilemma raised, either by blaming the situation on God (and how often those most strongly affirming the non-existence of God have a perverse propensity to question his goodness!) or by reducing man to the point of insignificance where his aberrations are no longer a problem. During World War II, Einstein, plagued by the mounting monstrosity of man against man, was heard to mutter to himself, “After all, this is a small star.”23 He escaped the dilemmas of man’s crime and evil but only at the price of undermining man’s significance.

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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____________________

Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 1)

Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 1)

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

Francis Bacon was a modern painter.

August 1, 2009 • Volume 23, Number 10

Artspace

Francis Bacon: The darker side of art

By Jenna Smith  |  ChristianWeek Columnist

Francis Bacon’s Painting 1946

This summer, the Metropolitain Museum of Art is hosting the first major Francis Bacon exhibition it has known in twenty years. “Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective” celebrates the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth. The British painter had the rare luxury of becoming rich and famous in his own lifetime. By his death in 1992, his paintings were already selling for millions, and their value has only risen since.

Bacon is a celebrated and controversial figure in the art world, or any world at that. One New York Times critic wrote, “If paintings could speak, Bacon’s would shriek.” Those who shudder in the presence his works are justified in doing so. The harshness of his critique of humanity is surpassed only by the grotesque nature of his images. Open bleeding flesh, exposed bones and carcasses fill the canvas. His faces and figures are often distorted, made to look broken or mutilated. The violence in his art is palpable. In a televised interview with Charlie Rose, Thomas Campbell, director of the Met, said “These are paintings that are created to evoke a reaction. Their subject matter is disturbing, unpleasant even revolting. But the surface of his paintings is also so engaging… you’re compelled to look.”

Critics, art historians and philosophers alike have offered up explanations as to Bacon’s view on life. He was abused as a child, a lifelong alcoholic who died of sclerosis of the liver, and he reached his prime as a painter during the last years of World War II.

His negative view of humankind was not unfounded. It would be false, however, to romanticize Bacon’s suffering. He rejected people’s complaints about his art being too harsh, stating, “People complain that I show the horrible side of life. I try to show the excitement of life.” In some ways, whether the viewer likes this or not, Bacon felt he was stating facts, not pushing buttons on our delicate sensibilities.

Gary Tinterow, the show’s curator, said this to Rose: “Here is the problem. He was constantly rubbing our face in our own mess, the mess that men and women are capable of doing to one another. He is constantly reminding us of our own bestiality….he would say that his art was the history of Europe in his own time.”

As if to add insult to injury, Bacon had recurring themes of Christian religious art in his work, recognizing the power of tryptichs and iconography. The crucifixion is especially present, representing for him the epitome of what horrible cruelty men are able of inflicting one upon the other. Take Painting 1946, for example. A faceless crucified figure dominates the backdrop, its skinless rib cage exposed. Above it hangs what looks like sausage from a butcher shop, and at the bottom of the canvas are two pieces of a carcass. A disfigured man holds a black umbrella in the centre of the painting. Bacon’s message is clear: we are meat.

Study After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (“The Screaming Pope”), 1953

Bacon also loved painting popes. His Study after Velzquez’s portrait of Innocent X evokes a renaissance portrait of this pope, except once more, there is a twist. Innocent X’s mouth is open in a scream, barely hidden by black shuttered stripes. Tinterow commented on his take of Christian religion: “He was an old-fashioned militant atheist…there was always a general squeamishness about his take on Christianity.”

What can a Christian’s response be to such art? What should it be? Can we accept the place of violence and darkness in our dialogue with art? Should we take into consideration his contribution to the ongoing debate about human existence? I would be inclined to say we must. We may not like the fact that there is little redemption in Bacon’s work, nor are we obliged to agree with his interpretation of the crucifixion. But there is undeniable power in his works, shocking us even today, some 60 years after their execution. And there is undeniable truth to his take on humanity.

Let us not be too hurt by his distortion of Christianity. He had a much bigger bone to pick with humans than he did with God. “He respected Christian ethics, and maintained that the Christian way of life was amongst the best in the panoply of ways of life,” commented Tinterow. “It’s just that his common sense forbade him from believing in the Church. He recognized, however, that the Church didn’t believe in him. The feeling was mutual.”

Jenna Smith is completing a joint Masters degree in the faculties of music and theology at the Université de Montréal. She lives in Montreal where she directs Innovation-Jeunes, an arts and nutrition centre for teens.

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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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____________

Below is a portion of an article by Os Guinness

“I come too early. My time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way.” Nietzsche“To be a man means to reach toward being God.” Jean Paul Sartre“In seeking to become angels we may become less than men.” Pascal“True civilization does not lie in gas, nor in steam, nor in turntables. It lies in the reduction of the traces of original sin.” Baudelaire“It is becoming more and more obvious, that it is not starvation, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is mankind’s greatest danger.” Carl Jung

“It is in our hearts that the evil lies, and it is from our hearts that it must be plucked Out.” Bertrand Russell

“Oh great gods, how far he lies from his destination!” Fillini, Fellini’s Satyricon1


Western culture is marked at the present moment by a distinct slowing of momentum, or perhaps, more accurately, by a decline in purposefulness and an increase in cultural introspection. This temporary lull, this vacuum in thought and effective action, has been created by the convergence of three cultural trends, each emphasizing a loss of direction. The first is the erosion of the Christian basis of Western culture, an erosion with deep historical causes and clearly visible results. The second is the failure of optimistic humanism to provide an effective alternative in the leadership of the post-Christian culture. And the third is the failure of our generation’s counter culture to demonstrate a credible alternative to either of the other two — Western Christianity and humanism.

The convergence of these three factors in the late sixties marks this period as especially important. What is at stake is nothing less than the direction of Western man. Only a few years ago the dismissal of Christianity was held to be a prerequisite for cultural advance. The decline of Christianity thus represented a cure for man’s problems, not a cause. So with the dawning of optimistic humanism the decline of Christianity was welcomed. Its adherents would be the only losers.

But that was yesterday. And contemporary yesterdays have a habit of suddenly seeming a hundred years ago. Today the cultural memory of traditional values hangs precariously like late autumn leaves, and in the new wintry bleakness optimism itself is greying. Now it appears that all of Western culture may be the loser.

My purpose is first to examine humanism, partially as a movement in itself but even more as a backdrop against which to appreciate the need for an alternative; then to chart the alternative offered by the counter culture with all its kaleidescopic variety; and finally, to present a third way as a more viable option in the light of man’s current situation. The weaknesses in both humanism and the counter culture are pointed out, not to negate much that has been extremely sensitive and intensely human, but to show the inevitability of their failures. The critique at least serves to illustrate certain mistakes that must not be repeated, and it highlights important questions and dilemmas with which further alternatives must grapple.

A third way is desperately necessary because the present options are growing more obviously unacceptable. And, in fact, there is a Third Way — one which is becoming increasingly welcome to a large number of sensitive searchers and free-spirited individuals who make up a major part of those dissatisfied with things as they are. This Third Way holds the promise of realism without despair, involvement without frustration, hope without romanticism. It combines a concern for humanness with intellectual integrity, a love of truth with a love of beauty, conviction with compassion and deep spirituality. But this is running ahead.

The Surfacing of Pessimism

Now we can see an important point more clearly. Optimistic humanism was only one stream of secular humanism. Its reverse was pessimistic humanism, and if the optimism was characteristically strong in academic circles, it is now evident that pessimism was more prevalent in the wider reality of life. Pessimistic humanism was always there, like a subterranean stream, murky in its depths and dark in its apprehension of dilemmas. It is this subterranean stream that is now threatening to surface and usurp the dignity and dominance of optimistic humanism.

Again we must go back in history to realize the full importance of this surfacing pessimism. Its genius was to see that behind the apparent stability of the nineteenth-century world in which modern humanism was born stood a different reality. Both Nietzsche and Kirkegaard were men who lived in passionate revolt against the smugness of the nineteenth century, particularly against the cheapness of its religious faith and the brash confidence of its secular reasoning, or generally against its shallow optimism, wordy idealism and tendency to conform. Such a smug world was not just false but dangerously foolish, if the true nature of reality lay elsewhere.

It is amazing that this subterranean pessimism was not taken more seriously earlier. But it was derided as the “Devil’s Party” — the poets, philosophers and prophets of chaos and catastrophe — and all too easy to dismiss.13 Some were ignored. Their repeated warnings were simply relegated to the status of cultural myth having only an innocuous respectability. In 1832 Hemrich Heine had said, “Do you hear the little bell tinkle? Kneel down — one brings the sacraments for a dying God.”14 Nietzsche’s later cry of the death of God and his searching diagnosis (“Everything lacks meaning. What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The goal is lacking; the answer is lacking to our ‘Why?’”)15 were not taken seriously either. After all, wasn’t Heine a poet, and wasn’t Nietzsche later deranged?

Other warnings were dismissed as only to be expected from the theory or temperament of their particular authors. Repeatedly in the 1930s, George Orwell depicted Western intellectuals as men who in blithe ignorance were sawing off the very branch on which they were sitting. Malcolm Muggeridge in his articles lanced open the “death wish of liberalism.” C. S. Lewis carefully made his exposures in “The Funeral of a Great Myth.”16 But the serious disquiet of Orwell, the humorous if testy honesty of Muggeridge and the gentle clarity and utter reasonableness of C. S. Lewis were before their time. They were predictable. They were ignored.

But the rising tide of disquiet cannot now be ignored. It is becoming the accepted mood of much recent judgment, as a hundred illustrations could quickly show. Writing in 1961 specifically on problems of Western culture, Frantz Fanon mocked, “Look at them today, swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.”17 In the same context, Jean Paul Sartre challenged, “Let us look at ourselves if we can bear to, and see what is becoming of us. First we must face that unexpected revelation, the strip tease of our humanism.”18 These two men could easily be dismissed as pessimistic, prejudiced politically and philosophically, but the disquiet does not stop there. Coming closer to the heart of humanism and speaking almost as an heir to a distinguished humanist house, Aldous Huxley described himself this way: “I was born wandering between two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born, and have made in a curious way the worst of both.”19 From the world of science John Rader Platt, the American biophysicist, said, “The world has now become too dangerous for anything less than Utopia.”20 Norman O. Brown, a man famous for the lyrical romanticism of his visions, admitted, “Today even the survival of humanity is a utopian hope.”21

There can be no stable equilibrium between optimism and pessimism but only an uneasy oscillation between the two. Optimistic humanism is strong in its stress on the aspirations of man but weak in its understanding of his aberrations. Accordingly, it lacks a base for the fulfillment of the former and its solutions to the latter are deficient; thus its ultimate optimism is eternally romantic. Pessimistic humanism, on the other hand, insists on the absurdity of man’s aspirations and speaks to the heart of his aberrations, but the price of its realism is the constant pull toward despair. This clear contrast throws further light on the current crisis.

Four Pillars of Optimistic Humanism

Optimistic humanism is being exposed as idealism without sufficient ideals. More accurately, its ideals are impossible to attain without a sufficient basis in truth, and this is just what its rationalistic premises are unable to provide. This is the key weakness of each of the four central pillars of optimistic humanism.

The first pillar is the belief in reason. Here optimistic humanism is forced to its initial leap of faith… Much of what was called reasoning is now more properly called rationalizing.

Modern philosophy also has reduced the pretentions of reason. For man, speaking from a finite reference point without divine revelation, to claim to have found a “universal” is not just to be mistaken. The claim itself is meaningless. For most modern men, objectivity, universals or absolutes are in a realm beyond the scope of reason; in this realm there is only the existential, non-rational, subjective understanding of truth.

Both psychology and philosophy have thus clipped the proud wings of rationalism and the unlimited usefulness of reason by itself. By rationalism I do not mean “rationalism” as opposed to “empiricism” but rather the hidden premise common to both — the humanist’s leap of faith in which the critical faculty of reason is tacitly made into an absolute and used as a super-tool to marshal particulars and claim meaning which in fact is proper only to the world of universals.

The second pillar is the belief in progress. The orientation toward the future introduced into Western culture by Christian linear teleology was secularized by the Enlightenment. Ostensibly it had been given objective scientific support by the evolutionary theory. It was widely believed that nature was marching forward inevitably to higher and higher views of life (as expressed, for instance, in the philosophy of Herbert Spencer). But this is now being drastically undermined. Many point to evidence of an evolutionary crisis, somewhat tarnishing the comfortable image of inevitable progress with man at the center of the stage controlling his own evolution. Some even predict the extinction of the human species.

The third pillar is the belief in science as the guide to human progress and the provider of an alternative to both religion and morals. If “evolution is good,” then evolution must be allowed to proceed and the very process of change becomes absolutized.

The fourth pillar is the belief in the self-sufficiency of man. A persistent erosion of man’s view of himself is occurring. The fact that man has made so many significant scientific discoveries points strongly to the significance of man, yet the content of these same scientific discoveries underscores his insignificance. Man finds himself dwarfed bodily by the vast stretches of space and belittled temporally by the long reaches of time. Humanists are caught in a strange dilemma. If they affirm the greatness of man, it is only at the expense of ignoring his aberrations. If they regard human aberrations seriously, they have to escape the dilemma raised, either by blaming the situation on God (and how often those most strongly affirming the non-existence of God have a perverse propensity to question his goodness!) or by reducing man to the point of insignificance where his aberrations are no longer a problem. During World War II, Einstein, plagued by the mounting monstrosity of man against man, was heard to mutter to himself, “After all, this is a small star.”23 He escaped the dilemmas of man’s crime and evil but only at the price of undermining man’s significance.

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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Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 1)

Francis Bacon: Humanist artist who believed life “is meaningless” (Part 1)

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.

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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

Francis Bacon was a modern painter.

August 1, 2009 • Volume 23, Number 10

Artspace

Francis Bacon: The darker side of art

By Jenna Smith  |  ChristianWeek Columnist

Francis Bacon’s Painting 1946

This summer, the Metropolitain Museum of Art is hosting the first major Francis Bacon exhibition it has known in twenty years. “Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective” celebrates the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth. The British painter had the rare luxury of becoming rich and famous in his own lifetime. By his death in 1992, his paintings were already selling for millions, and their value has only risen since.

Bacon is a celebrated and controversial figure in the art world, or any world at that. One New York Times critic wrote, “If paintings could speak, Bacon’s would shriek.” Those who shudder in the presence his works are justified in doing so. The harshness of his critique of humanity is surpassed only by the grotesque nature of his images. Open bleeding flesh, exposed bones and carcasses fill the canvas. His faces and figures are often distorted, made to look broken or mutilated. The violence in his art is palpable. In a televised interview with Charlie Rose, Thomas Campbell, director of the Met, said “These are paintings that are created to evoke a reaction. Their subject matter is disturbing, unpleasant even revolting. But the surface of his paintings is also so engaging… you’re compelled to look.”

Critics, art historians and philosophers alike have offered up explanations as to Bacon’s view on life. He was abused as a child, a lifelong alcoholic who died of sclerosis of the liver, and he reached his prime as a painter during the last years of World War II.

His negative view of humankind was not unfounded. It would be false, however, to romanticize Bacon’s suffering. He rejected people’s complaints about his art being too harsh, stating, “People complain that I show the horrible side of life. I try to show the excitement of life.” In some ways, whether the viewer likes this or not, Bacon felt he was stating facts, not pushing buttons on our delicate sensibilities.

Gary Tinterow, the show’s curator, said this to Rose: “Here is the problem. He was constantly rubbing our face in our own mess, the mess that men and women are capable of doing to one another. He is constantly reminding us of our own bestiality….he would say that his art was the history of Europe in his own time.”

As if to add insult to injury, Bacon had recurring themes of Christian religious art in his work, recognizing the power of tryptichs and iconography. The crucifixion is especially present, representing for him the epitome of what horrible cruelty men are able of inflicting one upon the other. Take Painting 1946, for example. A faceless crucified figure dominates the backdrop, its skinless rib cage exposed. Above it hangs what looks like sausage from a butcher shop, and at the bottom of the canvas are two pieces of a carcass. A disfigured man holds a black umbrella in the centre of the painting. Bacon’s message is clear: we are meat.

Study After Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (“The Screaming Pope”), 1953

Bacon also loved painting popes. His Study after Velzquez’s portrait of Innocent X evokes a renaissance portrait of this pope, except once more, there is a twist. Innocent X’s mouth is open in a scream, barely hidden by black shuttered stripes. Tinterow commented on his take of Christian religion: “He was an old-fashioned militant atheist…there was always a general squeamishness about his take on Christianity.”

What can a Christian’s response be to such art? What should it be? Can we accept the place of violence and darkness in our dialogue with art? Should we take into consideration his contribution to the ongoing debate about human existence? I would be inclined to say we must. We may not like the fact that there is little redemption in Bacon’s work, nor are we obliged to agree with his interpretation of the crucifixion. But there is undeniable power in his works, shocking us even today, some 60 years after their execution. And there is undeniable truth to his take on humanity.

Let us not be too hurt by his distortion of Christianity. He had a much bigger bone to pick with humans than he did with God. “He respected Christian ethics, and maintained that the Christian way of life was amongst the best in the panoply of ways of life,” commented Tinterow. “It’s just that his common sense forbade him from believing in the Church. He recognized, however, that the Church didn’t believe in him. The feeling was mutual.”

Jenna Smith is completing a joint Masters degree in the faculties of music and theology at the Université de Montréal. She lives in Montreal where she directs Innovation-Jeunes, an arts and nutrition centre for teens.

 

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