Barbarism in Plain Sight

During the week I had a mini eureka moment. The little spark of insight was in relation to the book I reviewed in last week’s post, Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot. I said at the end of that post that Patrick White would not have been surprised at what has happened over the last three years during the corona event. My realisation was that it was more than that. Patrick White had actually predicted what happened in the last three years. Not predicted the lockdowns or any of the specific details but the underlying form which gave rise to them. Riders in the Chariot was a warning that just such a thing would happen.

Now, admittedly, I am biased here because it turns out that White’s symbolic claim in Riders in the Chariot matches mine in that we both assert that the Devouring Mother is the dominant archetype of modern society. But, as long time readers of the blog would know, I arrived at my position before I had read White. So, all this is yet another of the many synchronicities I’ve been experiencing over the last few years. What are the chances that after arriving at such a hypothesis I would then happen to read an Australian author’s book written 60 years ago and realise he was saying the same thing?

Once upon a time I would have chalked this up to chance but I now believe that such synchronicities are meaningful. They reveal something about the world. Of course, all this goes against the whole tide of modern western culture. So, perhaps as a starting point, let me summarise the assumptions which form the background to this post:

  1. The Devouring Mother / Orphan archetype is the governing archetype of the hysteria of the last three years. That was my initial position which I then expanded to say that they are the governing archetype of the whole of the post-war period. Riders in the Chariot is one more piece of evidence for that assertion because White quite clearly identifies the Devouring Mother as the antagonist in the story and, by implication, as the driving force of post-war culture.
  2. Archetypal thinking is acausal. The way to think about archetypes is like an electrical circuit. The archetype is the components in the circuit; its structure. Just as an electrical circuit is activated by electricity, an archetype is activated by psychic energy. The Devouring Mother archetype has been dominant for decades in the West but this was mostly at the microcosmic level. The thing that changed at the start of corona was an enormous amount of psychic energy was channeled into the archetype leading to a macrocosmic event.
  3. True works of art can say just as much about “reality” as science because they invoke archetypes and the assumption here is that archetypes underlie reality. As the archetypes live in the subconscious, arts is a way of bringing to consciousness what would otherwise be unconscious. Thus, great works of fiction such as a Patrick White novel are not just “make believe”. They can and do say something about the real world. When I say that Patrick White anticipated the corona event, I mean that literally (Note: this assumption is at odds with our dominant materialist cultural script which sees art either as entertainment or epiphenomena).
  4. All of the above entails a different way of thinking than the dominant paradigm of the modern west which relies on creating models that are assumed to identify cause and effect relationships. Due to our obsession with binary thinking, we assume such models give binary, true/false answers. However, in any model of medium number systems, the best we can say is that the model gives some probability that the cause and effect relationship will be true while never ruling out that the model is completely wrong. In other words, such models should never be thought of as giving binary answers.
  5. In my opinion, which I will need to explain properly in a separate post, acausal archetypal thinking is not just an alternative way of thinking, it is the correct way of thinking about medium number system because it is holistic. I would make the claim that a Patrick White novel gives us a more accurate view of the everyday world than “science” because the way of thinking implied is the correct one for dealing with medium number systems. Reductionist science, by definition, is not holistic. To understand the world holistically, we must bring our whole being to bear. That’s what true art does.

The supreme advantage of the novel as a form of art is that it is holistic. The novel can communicate things that, I would argue, cannot be communicated in any other way because, as I have said in the past, the archetypal structure of the novel – the hero’s journey – is an information technology that facilitates an incredible density of meaning that cannot be matched by other forms. That’s true even in relation to a humble blog post such as this one. Think of it like the difference between a solo violin and a full orchestra. The novel can resonate in a way that the single violin can not.

So, we return to Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot and we assume that this is not just a story. I made a similar point about White’s Voss in my review of that book. I said that I thought it was a kind of religious text; a spiritual document. I now put Riders in the Chariot in the same category. White did not just write an incredible story that we can appreciate as the work of art, he was sounding a warning. I said in the last post that he wanted Riders in the Chariot to be like a literary bomb. But I hadn’t fully comprehended to what extent he was right and how Riders in the Chariot was warning that exactly something like corona could happen.

What White was saying in Riders in the Chariot was this: post-war Australian culture, and by extension the post-war culture of the West in general, suffered from the same underlying problems that led to Nazi Germany. Contrary to what we tell ourselves, WW2 did not solve any of those underlying problems even though “we won”.

That’s what is implied by the mock crucifixion episode in Riders in the Chariot. Himmelfarb had escaped the horrors of the holocaust. He escaped Nazi Germany. He travelled to the other side of the world to start new life in a country that was supposed to be better than that. What happens? He gets crucified as a Jew. The power in the story is that it is absolutely believable. It may not have happened in such dramatic fashion, but episodes of casual racism, including against Jews, were an everyday experience in post-war Australia. But the problem goes deeper than racism.

We have to learn to think symbolically and to take the symbolism of Riders in the Chariot seriously in order to understand this idea. By our default morality of utilitarianism, the comparison of a fictional episode of workplace bullying to the holocaust seems outrageous or even morally repugnant.  That’s because utilitarianism cares only about material consequences and, by definition, a work of fiction has no material consequences. Millions of people died in the holocaust. Himmelfarb did not die. In fact, he only had a couple of scratches. And, in any case, he’s not even real. He’s a fictional character in a book. Therefore, there is no comparison.

But there is a comparison.

Structurally, formally, archetypally, the episode with Himmelfarb is identical to what occurred in Nazi Germany. It is, in fact, a replica of what happened during the Kristallnacht pogrom; a seemingly random outburst of barbarism. That was the point White was implying. The holocaust was barbarism. Everybody would agree with that. The mock crucifixion of Himmelfarb in Riders in the Chariot is also barbarism. But here we must be very clear about what sort of barbarism we are talking about because barbarism itself operates on multiples levels of being. It has its manifestation in the material domain but it also has its spiritual manifestation and that is the barbarism that we must learn to see and to take seriously. A novel can teach us to do so.

We would all agree that the holocaust was barbaric and yet part of what makes the holocaust so horrific and so different from more obvious forms of barbarism was that it was carried out with all the accoutrements we normally associate with civilisation. The transportation of the Jews was done with modern mass transit. As anybody who’s visited a concentration camp knows, the camps were orderly places. Clean. Organised. The people who worked there earned a wage. To this day, you can still view the meticulous bureaucratic records that were kept by camp officials. Medical experiments were carried out with all the cleanliness, discipline and attention to detail we associate with modern science. The whole thing was sickeningly clinical.

When we think of barbarism, we think of disorder, chaos, destruction. When we think of civilisation, we think of order, rules, law, architecture. Viewed from the outside, the concentration camps looked for all the world like artefacts of civilisation. If you had walked past one and didn’t know what was going on inside, you might have assumed they were a barracks or some kind of industrial facility. The Jews who went into them were processed. It’s a sickening word but that’s really what happened. There were orderly queues. There were official announcements over loudspeakers. There were clear instructions and rules to follow. Camp officials pointed the way to the shower block and eventually to the gas chamber itself.

Barbarism is supposed to be one thing and civilisation its opposite. You are supposed to be able to see the difference with your own eyes. But the holocaust broke that distinction. It was barbarism in the guise of civilisation. The wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It’s telling, and symbolically crucial, that the Kristallnacht pogrom precipitated the holocaust. The pogrom itself was triggered when a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, was assassinated by a German Jew in Paris. It was this event that got the Nazi leadership thinking about the final solution.

The Kristallnacht was an example of real, old-fashioned barbarism. But it’s crucial to understand that most Germans were appalled by it and, furthermore, that the pogrom was not a spontaneous eruption of violence on behalf of the public. It was initiated by the authorities and carried out by the SA and the SS. Even then, some leaders and members of the SS refused to take part.

The Nazi leadership understood that the persecution of the Jews did not have public support and this is why the holocaust was not carried out as an act of overt barbarism but was hidden away behind the cloak of civility. It’s for this reason that many Germans at the time were unaware of the holocaust, and even refused to believe it had happened later on when the war was over.

Even the German Jews fell into this trap. This is what White shows us in his novel. It forms the core of Himmelfarb’s backstory. By the time of the Kristallnacht, many German Jews had realised what the Nazis were about and had left the country. Many more would leave after the pogrom. The ones who didn’t, including Himmelfarb, were in denial. They still couldn’t believe it was actually happening.

White shows us this psychology via Himmelfarb’s journey to the concentration camp in Poland. The transportation happens on a normal commuter train. This simple fact alone lifts the spirits of the passengers. We’re not in a cattle cart, they note. Something must have happened. Some kind of deal must have been done. International pressure had been brought to bear on the Nazis. We must be being taken to a neutral country. Maybe to Palestine.

Like the Kristallnacht, the cattle carts were outward expressions of barbarism. The commuter train, on the other hand, represents civilisation. The passengers on the train see civilisation around them and assume that they are still living in a civilised country. The horrific tragedy was that many still believed that all the way up until the gassing because things were orderly, civilised. Queues were formed. There was a place to hang your clothes. You were about to take a shower. Surely nobody would bother to give you a shower before killing you?

All these things are symbols. They are symbols of civilisation. But symbols are just pointers. These symbols had pointed to civilisation all the way up until the time when they didn’t. They were no longer pointing to civilisation for the passengers on that train.

In order to understand that, you needed to reorder your conception of the world. You needed to be able to see beyond surface appearance and activate your higher mental faculties. It required you to no longer trust your own eyes when they tell you that what you see is civilisation. This was no small task. It meant understanding that the very society you lived in was not what you thought it was. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we faced exactly the same thing in the last three years. Structurally, formally, archetypally, the corona event was barbarism. But most people did not see it because it was presented with the facade of civilisation.

When the corona hysteria was in full swing, there were videos of actual holocaust survivors speaking at protests comparing the lockdowns and other measures to Nazi Germany. While writing this post, I spent a good 5 minutes trying to find one of those videos but the first several pages of search results are filled with, you guessed it, news articles denouncing the comparison to the holocaust. How strange and how sad that the internet has now devolved to the state where you can find the denunciation of an event but not the event being denounced. Even the internet is now an upside-down world where the truth is the opposite of what you are told. Even the internet is becoming barbaric.

The denunciation of the holocaust comparison does make sense from the utilitarian point of view, of course. Millions of people died in the holocaust. The lockdowns might have caused some deaths, but nowhere near that number. Ergo, the holocaust was morally worse.

Even if you accept this as true, the fact is that the structure is still there. The underlying form has not altered. Therefore, there is nothing to stop it all happening again. That was White’s point. We must address the underlying barbarism. But the challenge is that the barbarism does not primarily manifest in the material world (yet). It is, for want of a better word, spiritual barbarism.

The barbarism we are talking about is not violence or cruelty. In fact, in the world of the Devouring Mother, it takes the opposite form of excessive care. The barbarism we are concerned with is ignorance, obliviousness. This is the barbarism that White was referring to and is the opposite of what I have previously called Sophia, wisdom.

The characters who mock crucify Himmelfarb are genuinely oblivious. In their ignorance, they hang a Jewish man who escaped from the holocaust from a tree on Passover. They hang a man who has come to Australia looking to start a new life. They do so out of ignorance. It’s that ignorance that is the barbarism. It’s the same barbarism that was present in Nazi Germany with people who were just “doing their job” or just “following orders”.

When this ignorance manifests in some large scale social event, it’s easy to feel powerless or to feel that only some heroic effort can stop such things from happening. So, we look around for some leader who can take care of it for us. White’s point is the same point made by Dostoevsky. These problems might seem large and abstract, but they grow out of the soil of everyday life. Therefore, they can and should be addressed at the everyday level.

I mentioned last week that the artist, Dubbo, is the only one who understands what was happening to Himmelfarb but he fails to intervene. Actually, there is one other character who fails to act and that is the other Jewish immigrant in the story, Rosetree. It is their failure to act that allows the mock crucifixion to happen. To paraphrase the saying, all that is required for barbarism to occur is for people who know better to do nothing.

It doesn’t matter that this is some seemingly random thing that happens one day in a small nowhere town in Australia. Large atrocities grow out of the small. Several hundred people died in the Kristallnacht. Several millions died in the holocaust. The one led to the other. That is another problem with utilitarianism. It extrapolates to the future linearly. To extrapolate to the future properly, you must understand the underlying structure and that requires an understanding of symbolism.

But, again, all this can seem too detached and abstract. The beauty of the novel is that it brings all these considerations together in one. It connects the abstract, symbolic meanings back to everyday life. The key point that both White and Dostoevsky make is that the power to change this is within everyone’s grasp. It starts from everyday life. To do what is right every day is what is needed.

If any of the characters in Riders in the Chariot had simply gotten to know Himmelfarb as a real person, the mock crucifixion could never have happened because you don’t do that to somebody you know and have some basic level of care for. The base level of empathy needed to prevent such things from happening is shared by (almost) all of us. It’s when that empathy goes missing that we become disconnected from each other. And just like a lack of empathy at the everyday level can give rise to large scale outbreaks of barbarism, so the re-discovery of empathy at the everyday level leads to the higher forms of empathy implied by the concept of Sophia.

It’s for this reason that the Jews had to be segregated away in ghettoes before being physically removed to remote concentration camps. They had to be physically separated from those who could empathise with them. Is it a coincidence that we were physically separated from each other during corona? When people come together they interact as human beings and natural empathy works like it should. That is the starting point. That’s how simple the answer is (although, simple is not the same as easy).

The same message was conveyed in what is surely one of the most moving scenes ever shown on television and proof that television has not always been vacuous nonsense. The mathematician Jacob Bronowski, himself a Polish Jew whose parents had moved to England before the Nazis took power, walks into a pond at Auschwitz. He was presenting a set piece for the TV series The Ascent of Man, but his final address to the camera was apparently completely improvised and off script. His words speak for themselves. 50 years later “science” was once again used as a cover for barbarism; for ignorance. We still face these same problems.

Here is the full scene.

12 thoughts on “Barbarism in Plain Sight”

  1. Scary. Existential darkness level scary.

    💬 The passengers on the train see civilisation around them and assume that they are still living in a civilised country.

    Fellow passengers if I may, let’s close our lying eyes and ‘activate higher mental faculties’. So, whither is *our* train heading?

    Vera Sharav, Holocaust survivor and human rights advocate:
    ✔ famous speech at 75th Anniversary Event of Nuremberg Code, August 20, 2022 →
    ✓ personal story captured on film premiered Oct 13, 2020 → 1st part; 2nd part ‘has been removed for violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines’ 🤷🤬

  2. Daiva – thanks for those links. There was one particular video I remember of an older lady, I think more than 100 years old, speaking at a protest. Wish I could find that one as I remember that being one of the better ones I heard.

    Civilisation is far more fragile than we think. I always think of the image from the final scene from the great Kurosawa film “Ran”, which is also about how easily civilisation turns to barbarism: a blind man on a cliff trying not to fall off.


  3. Synchronicity has always been part of my life. I think, just the fact that I this year read your blog is a moment of synchronicity. Perhaps of we connect around the globe, synchronicity can work on a bigger scale.
    But as you write, the symbolic life must start at an everyday level.
    I work in open care psychiatry and we use our ordinary clothes at work, just to send a symbolic message to the patients, that we in some sense are at the same level. When Corona started, the local public health care authority told us that it is compulsory to have a white work-clothes. There was no hard scientific reason presented, why we had to use only white work-clothes at our workplace, so we resisted. Most patients appreciate that we still meet them as individuals, especially the most severe mentally ill. This kind of civil disobedience work in Sweden, which I am very thankful for.

  4. Olle – that’s a great example. Clothes have always been used as markers of social hierarchy/civilisation. How many photos have there been, particularly from the US, where the “elites” or Hollywood celebrities are not wearing a mask but the waiters and waitresses and other service staff are made to wear a mask. I suppose if we are going to have authoritarian measures, then we need overt markers of authority to go with them.

  5. Wasn’t the clinical way in which humans were disposed of modelled on what we do to animals? It’s basically the same structure, load them on a train or truck, try to lessen anxiety and stress, and then clinically deal with them at the abattoir. We still do that, on a massive scale, every single day. I’m personally involved in that industry and it’s horrific, but then doing it yourself hurts too, although I find it morally far more acceptable. We have a habit of outsourcing our violence, rather than dealing with all the moral complexity of doing the killing ourselves. But then, would it have been morally better if the Jews were murdered in the streets by their neighbours (in medieval pogrom way) rather than done the industrial way?

    This is why I tend to think the holocaust was based off of much older cultural pogrom issues in Europe done in the industrial way. This puritan thread lies deep in Western European psyche, and is extremely dangerous. It’s always framed in terms of cleanliness and purity (see Corona).

  6. Skip – that’s a good point. I touched on that way back at the start of this mess –

    I don’t know if it’s true, but my understanding was the the violence against the Jews was not the old-fashioned pogrom, which is exactly the kind of mob violence that seems unfortunately to be a human universal, at least wherever there is a visible and identifiable minority among a majority population. Rather, it was instigated by the zealots in the Nazi Party who had a quasi-religious belief in the race ideology. The problem back then was that those beliefs about race were widely held among the general population and there were true believers in the general public too. So, when the zealots in power started to push a hardcore line, the true believers would enthusiastically support them while the majority would passively accept it as it sounded sort of plausible. It sounds very familiar to the political/cultural situation at the moment. The zealots in power no longer believe the race ideology but they believe other ideologies which are more or less shared by the majority of the population meaning the majority can be convinced to passively accept things they otherwise would not.

    The argument then is that real human contact is the best antidote to ideology, which seems true to me.

  7. I’m curious what you mean when you write regarding “The Devouring Mother / Orphan archetype.” I am a very dilettantish student of the Jungians, and have of course encountered their discussion of the Devouring Mother, especially in Marie-Louise von Franz lecture series on The Problem of the Puer Aeturnus and The Feminine in Fairy Tales. She also touches on the Devouring Mother in her lecture series on Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tale and Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales.

    In these books von Franz has a lot of say on the Devouring Mother, and mother complexes more generally. But she never mentions the Devouring Mother in connection with the Orphan, and never mentions the Orphan at all as an archetype. She usually couples the Puer Aeternus with the Devouring Mother.

    Now, my reading of Jung is more superficial of my reading of von Franz, and I haven’t seen him mention the Orphan either. Looking it up online I see he mentions the Orphan in an alchemical context in his memoir, , but he doesn’t discuss the Orphan as an archetype elsewhere as far as I know.

    May I ask where you encountered discussion of the Orphan archetype? I am very fortunate in that my library system has the entire collected works of Jung, and so if he writes of it in an essay I would be most curious to read what he has to say on the matter in more depth. My library also has a decent collection of other Jungian authors, if there is fuller discussion of the Orphan with subsequent authors.

  8. Potentilla – thanks a lot for that link. Fascinating. I also hadn’t found Jung or other Jungians writing on the Orphan concept. Let me try and summarise how I developed it.

    You’re correct, the typical formation is the Devouring Mother – Puer Aeternus. However, when I began to use the Devouring Mother as explanation for corona and then as a broader general pattern for modern society, it seemed to me that the Puer Aeternus didn’t fit as a psychological description. What fitted better was The Orphan. I got the Orphan concept from literary adaptations of the Jungian archetypes. If you’re interested, I did a detailed description of The Orphan archetype with references to literature and film here –

    Short version: The Orphan is the transition period between Puer Aeternus and adulthood. In hunter-gatherer culture, this was the “initiation” period eg. “walkabout” in Australian indigenous culture or “vision quest” in native American. Agricultural societies mark the transition at the onset of puberty with coming-of-age religious ceremonies eg. the bar and bat mitzvah in Jewish culture. In esoteric religious instruction, the Orphan period can last many years. It is the transition from novice to adept.

    In modern society, due to economic factors resulting in the loss of employment for teenagers, we have extended the period of Orphanhood to include high school and university. This gave rise to the concept of adolescence. In doing so, we made The Orphan archetype dominant especially since there is also now no definitive marker by which a person can attain “adulthood”. This also activates The Devouring Mother archetype since the population is now stuck is perpetual childhood but not in the Peur Aeternus but in the transitional state of Orphanhood.

    Those are the basics of the idea. If you’re interested, I sketch it out in far more detail in the Age of the Orphan series at the link I mentioned above.

  9. Hi Simon,

    One of the scariest motto’s on constant display during the recent crazy outbreak episode was: “Staying apart, keeps us together”. It always sounded like a threat. I never believed we could be that foolish, turns out I was wrong.

    I interact with a lot of people, and lately some of the interactions are suggestive to me that a level of empathy has been lost, or perhaps reduced is a more correct way of putting it. Dunno, but alarmingly there has been some weird treating people as ‘objects’ activity, which is quite disturbing. Not sure yet what to make of it. Hmm. Anyway, I try to respond with a firmness, but also good grace. It’s a new post corvid thing.

    A very thoughtful analysis, you always provide much food for the mind to ponder with your writing.



  10. Chris – hah, I’d forgotten about that stupid slogan. Somebody, or most likely a committee of people, had to come up with that. Imagine the mindset of a person who says “that’s the one. That’s the slogan we need.”

  11. Chris — interesting comment, treating people as objects. Since I had children and they started watching a bit of TV a couple of years ago, it’s given me a bit of shock realising how nearly every children’s show, even those on the supposedly values-friendly ABC Kids, have characters (usually robots but sometimes an animal sidekick or something approaching humanoid) that are treated worse than slaves. And I reflect on my own behaviour around the proliferating annoying machines — self-checkouts, those bloody smart phone enabled escooters left strewn across footpaths, any government or school-related app — and I realise it’s probably been some time now that young ones have been surrounded by really bad behaviour models like this. And after two years of all of life mediated through screens, it doesn’t really surprise me that dehumanising behaviour is becoming the standard MO across society in general.

  12. AM – that’s a very good point relevant to my last few posts. There are many technologies that encourage us to treat other people as objects. I suppose almost every technology does to some extent because technology is always, in some sense, a machine.

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