This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3| Volume 4 | Volume 5 | Volume 6

Self-consciousness

“The century…has been marked by the idea of ‘modernism’—a self-consciousness new among centuries, a consciousness of being new…a sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain.”

~ John Updike

Your problem is that you are self-conscious. By this I do not mean “selfish,” as the moralists would say, nor do I mean that you possess too much self-knowledge, as the ancients would say: instead I mean something more like an inescapable, existential self-centeredness.

In this sense, we are quite possibly the most self-conscious people ever to walk the face of the earth. Remember the old story about Adam and Eve? That message is more about self-consciousness than anything else. When Adam ate the apple he moved from simply being himself to thinking about himself. He was ripped from living in comfortable unison with his identity—a unison so absolute that he never had to think about himself in the least—and was cast into the exile of his own head. Eden was his rootedness and his security, and his banishment was to the changeable, frail environment of his empirical mind, its only comfort being what it can gather via sensory experience. When this happened, his existence was degraded one step, by which we say that he became “self-conscious.”

That was the Fall that you’ve heard to much about. It was, ironically, a fall up into the mind and into the horrible insecurity of having to think about yourself in order to be reassured that you exist.

Now do you understand why they say that death entered the world at the Fall?. Well that only makes sense. If a man is not self-conscious, then death does not exist. You have to be concerned with the past and fearful for the future in order for death to threaten you. And it always threatens your Self, that thing which previously you weren’t much concerned with. That’s why the birds and the bees don’t know death. They aren’t self-conscious.

Adam ate the apple, it went to his head, and now he knows death. That’s the knowledge he gained. That is not so much a doctrine of the Fall as it is our experience of it, and man hasn’t stopped falling since. Every step of the way he seems to become more and more trapped in his own head, more and more concerned with the precariousness of his Self and its existence.

Whether or not you are Christian, the original myth of the garden certainly explains a lot. That’s the true value of myths when it comes to daily life: they explain us to ourselves. And the myth of Adam explains you and I to a “T.” Why should we care if it happened at a specific place and time?—it happens every day within us. We know the Fall even if we don’t know anything about God.

We cannot for one moment stop thinking about ourselves. Just listen to our music. Every hit song smacks of this particular form of insecurity, stuffed with lyrics demanding “acceptance for who I am” or “who we are,” heaping praises on ourselves simply for “where we’re from,” never concerned with whether or not we’ve ever done anything worthwhile. That isn’t arrogance. It is self-consciousness. Whether you listen to country or gangster rap, the lyrics are always the same: it always amounts to a long string of self-congratulations for driving a big truck or a Cadillac, for being born in Dixie or the projects, for drinking Jack Daniels or Grey Goose, and always and everywhere for having indiscriminate sex.

The message at the back is always the same. It is a desperate and usually obnoxious attempt at self-assurance. That’s why we drink it up—we can’t get enough of these lyrics that praise us and convince us that we do indeed have some sort of worthwhile identity. Tune in to any radio station that plays the current “hits.” What you will hear are the laments of self-alienated and self-conscious individuals. That is the artistic expression of our epoch.

Ironically, even contemporary religious or “worship” music is saturated with this. Everything centers on “me,” “mine,” and “my God.” Gone is cautious supplication of the Old Testament psalmist who spoke always of God’s people in the plural. Contemporary Christianity only wants to hear about a Jesus who is our “personal savior.”

Always the worship music is about all God has given us and gives us and will certainly continue to give us. We cannot allow into our minds the terrible possibility that we might have a test to pass first in order to be worthy of the title ‘children of God.’ Our Jesus only wants to hold us and squeeze us and shower us with blessings.

Eventually one begins to wonder whether it is God who is being praised, or if it is the other way around. Such is the worship of a self-conscious Christianity. And so it is with our agnostic generation that, even when we go to church, we are unable to find or maintain any real certainty about who we are and where we stand in the world.

We all know that it is possible to think too much. Thought can drive you insane if you aren’t careful. Sometimes thought can paralyze and destroy. That’s our problem. You have to be rooted in your being before you start thinking. Rootedness and being must always come first or else your reasoning is tainted and undermined from the start. That’s why our thinking, and the thinking of men in general for a long time now, is undermined and chaotic. All we have is the mind to cling to, and it doesn’t work very well on its own. Anything can be rationalized, and if anything, then nothing.

Because we are rootless and disoriented, we start at the wrong end and reverse the process. We start at the wrong spot—in the head—and then try to arrive at our being. You must understand the great tragedy of this reversal and the story it tells. It is the essence of self-alienation.

Everyone has heard the rationalist motto: “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Rene Descartes, the man who said it, was doing what we now do habitually. In that regard, he was the spiritual father of us all. He was trying to find himself by starting with his own thoughts, and he never got beyond them. “I think, therefore I am” is the motto of estrangement, for people who search and never become anything more than a thought about themselves.

At this point we should ask why the problem has become exaggerated in recent history. “Hasn’t every other generation struggled with the same problem?” Yes and no. Yes, this process and this struggle has been underway for centuries, but this also implies that things are constantly changing, so that we are not like others before us. Our struggles carry the accent of our era.

We’ve already hinted at the problem. We observed that in the last few centuries mankind systematically carried out a revolution and rejected everything that came before. He cut his traditional tether. He became “modern.”

With him he brought all of the evils of the modern world. Whatever the shortcomings of the ancient social framework, it could at least help a man know who he was and where he stood in regard to the universe. For example, religion was, in traditional societies, always central to social life, whatever form that religion happened to take. Religion explains much to man. It gives him rootedness and reassurance. It gives him a truth to hold to and around which to pivot. But the modern world has no religion, at least not any real social or existential sense. Our religion is a private affair, usually more of a hobby, something “on the side,” carried out as a social event for “fellowship,” which pretty much renders it culturally inert.

We are individuals now. Individualism is an “American tradition,” is it not? This means that most of the questions a civilization used to answer together, as a sort of collective, cooperative effort, are now each man’s own battle to fight alone. Everything is a solo mission, and it has ended in tragedy.

Stripped of all the old structures and safe paths, we tend to wander through life unprotected. We are like bare wires, stripped of all insulating layers of culture and community and religion, spiritually naked and exposed, ready to short out at the slightest disturbance. We are sensitive beyond all usefulness. This disease of self-consciousness, then, is in a way uniquely ours.

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