Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia, and Native American Perceptions of Reality. (02/22/2001)
Trying to pin Ernst Bloch firmly to a position with respect to his perception of utopia is a task made difficult, perhaps even impossible, by virtue of his habit of waxing poetic as soon as he draws close to an opportunity of actually saying what his perception is. That is one way of putting the impression I have of his work. Another way of saying the same thing is that Bloch always commits his discourse to an expression of things unseen as soon as he begins characterizing what he means by utopia. Utopia is essentially otherworldly in Bloch's view, a place of supra-idealistic perfection where human personality reaches its highest level of existence in the realization of Christian principle and dogma. Bloch refers to this state as the "moral-mystical world," which seems to correspond to the purely communal, classless state of Marxist-Leninist desire. In his view this state replaces the egotistical-I of capitalist society, which privileges the individual as primary actor, with a communal anti-egotistical We in the new world order of the utopian state. He equates the sacrificial "lamb" of the egotistical I-state with Dionysos, apparently, while Christ stands as the "lamb" of the supra-idealistic perfection embodied in his utopian We-dream. He says, for instance, that the new order will be founded on
"Not Dionysos, then, but [on] the spark, the thought of the soul, the spirit of the soul, the illuminated ground of the soul, [which] is the highest mystical concretion, is equally the very last seal, like the very deepest inwardness and content of the very last adequation: wisdom alone keeps watch over the constitutive stretch of the homecoming." (205-206)
One needs to know Euripides's The Bacchae to understand the contrast that Bloch draws here between Dionysos and Christ. In his opening speech, Dionysos says: "I am Dionysos, the son of Zeus,/ come back to Thebes, this land where I was born. . . ./ And here I stand, a god incognito,/ disguised as man" (ll. 1-5). Christ also fits, in a different way, this same description, since He too was the son of the highest God, who came to earth "incognito, disguised as man," if only so to speak. One must, of course, recognize the fact that, when Euripides describes Dionysos in this way, he is producing a pagan version, a profane equivalent, of the most sacred ideogram of the Christian religion. Even though it is possible to say that Dionysos and Christ are identically conceived as the "god incognito, disguised as man," the ultimate outcome, or "homecoming," of the two mythical characters in their separate journeys through the world of human interaction turns out to be radically different.
In Euripides's tragedy, Dionysos has returned to Thebes, a homecoming of sorts, to punish its citizens for refusing to worship him as a god. Dionysos casts a pall of ecstatic frenzy over the minds of the women of Thebes, who are led into the wilderness outside the city walls by the Queen of the city, Agave. Her son, Pentheus, who disguises himself as a woman at Dionysos's urging, goes out to spy on the women as they worship Dionysos in the ritual known as the bacchanalia. Agave sees her son, mistakes him for a lion in her mind-clouded frenzy and, with the help of the other women, hunt him. Pentheus is caught, torn to piece by the women, and his head is carried back to the city by Agave, who continues to believe that her trophy of the hunt is the head of a lion. Her "homecoming," her son with her, as it were, is framed as the moment of tragic recognition when Agave, and all of Thebes with her, escape from the ecstasy inspired by Dionysos, see clearly that the trophy of the hunt is the heir to the throne of the city, and become aware of the fact that Dionysos has exacted his revenge against those who refused to accept his deity. Dionysos, in the wider frame of his mythic identity, was considered to be a kind of seasonal god who died each year at the onset of winter and came back to life again in the spring. In the context of The Bacchae, however, Pentheus is cast as the figure of the sacrificial "lamb," as it were, whose death redeems the city of Thebes from the sin of refusing to recognize or accept the identity of Dionysos as the "son" of god (Zeus), as deity himself.
The reason the myth of Dionysos fails to parallel exactly the myth of Christ is obvious at a number of different points. Pentheus does not willingly become the "lamb" of God as Christ was said to do. Pentheus is not a "god incognito, disguised as man," but only human, as both Dionysos and Christ were thought to be. Pentheus's death was not thought to redeem the entire world from original sin, as Christ's death was thought to do, but was meant only to redeem Thebes from its sin of refusing to recognize the divinity of Dionysos. In Bloch's terms, then, what we have in The Bacchae is a redemption of the egotistical-I from its failure to recognize an individual god as such. In the Christian myth, a universal-We is redeemed by the willing sacrifice of the "god incognito, disguised as man" who was sent by the Father for that express purpose. Now, and most significantly in the context of Bloch's perception of utopia, at least as I understand it, the "homecoming" of Christ, at the end of time, will be exactly like Dionysos's return to Thebes; that is, Christ is expected to return to earth at the Second Coming to reward true believers with eternal life, on the one hand, but also to punish those who refuse to recognize his divinity, by granting them eternal death, on the other. These two visions of the god-man relationship are not the same thing, of course.
In what may be his clearest expression of the nature of his utopian philosophy, Bloch says that
"The existing world is the world of the past, and the despiritualized object of science, but human longing in both forms-as impatience and as waking dream-is the mainsail into the other world. This intending toward a star, a joy, a truth to set against the empirical, beyond its satanic night and especially beyond its night of incognito, is the only way still to find truth, the question about us is the only problem, the resultant of every world-problem, and to formulate this Self- and We-Problem in everything, the opening, reverberating through the world, of the gates of homecoming, is the ultimate basic principle of utopian philosophy." (206, emphasis in original)
As noted above, Bloch does tend to wax into poetico-mystical expression and terminology when he approaches the issues of utopian philosophy and here he has certainly done that when he says that formulating the issue or problem most significant to the achievement of the utopian ideal depends on "opening. . .the gates of homecoming," where that action seems to be connected to doing something, even something "revolutionary" in a Marxist-Leninist sense (perhaps), to bring about or hasten the Second Coming of Christ. Clearly, the object of this effort, this "utopian philosophy," is "other"-worldly, since "human longing" is characterized as the "mainsail" into the "other" world. He makes this view, or attitude, crystal clear when he says later, in concluding remarks about the nature of the rebirth of heathenistic vegetation gods (Dionysos) who tend to masquerade as sun deities, that the prophets (Old Testament) and Gospels create a sharp distinction "which proclaim not the sun but the Son of Man, not the world but the exodus from the world" (214, emphasis in original). Utopia, therefore, in Bloch's philosophy, seems to be connected to the Second Coming and to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth after the apocalypse.
That Bloch intends us to associate the revolutionary morality of Christ's suffering and death with a Marxist-Leninist revolution, and to take both together as the "opening" of the "gates of homecoming" is never made absolutely explicit in Bloch's articulation of the utopian state. However, since capitalism is perceived by Marxian theorists as concerned only with producing material wealth from material goods, at the expense of the workers, who are degraded, alienated, and "despiritualized" to a subhuman level by the labor required to produce it and them, it becomes possible to argue that the radical morality of Christian ideology, especially in its turning away from the pursuit of material comfort in the physical world, was meant to overthrow and undermine whatever force or structure society generated in pursuit of the merely physical aspects of human existence. Bloch says that
"The unhesitating submission, the moral conscience, if necessary sealed by death as well, suffering as a means to destroy the old Adam, this true principle of suffering: all this comes from the life of Jesus, can absolutely not be eliminated from the revolutionary morality he directed absolutely against every creatureliness, but: the dogma of the vicarious, once for all accomplished sacrificial death, as an chthonic-cosmic magic, was clearly added by St. Paul from Near Eastern cults of seasonal gods." (214, emphasis in original)
Here, the idea of man's "creatureliness" reflects the notion that human reality necessarily rises above the level of a purely physical, even temporal, existence and that the sacrificial death of the "lamb" of God, since it destroyed the "old Adam," secured the possibility of mankind's eventual elevation to a status in Christian hierarchical paradigms above the level of a merely physical, if not damned, existence. What Bloch argues, then, is that the utopian dream of the perfect state of classless society, which Marxism posits as the inevitable result of historical determinism, can only come to pass when the final revolution of Christian morality against man's "creatureliness" is fought and won.
In contrast to this Eurocentric view of human history, tribal people have always held to a complete different perception of reality, one that has never included the notion that individual people are somehow flawed by their inherent and inescapable "creatureliness," and that they have to be saved from that status by the chthonic-cosmic magic of a sacrificial "lamb" of God. Even if such a thing were possible in the real world, it would be rejected, even overruled, on the ground of simple necessity. Such excessive, supra-dramatic, and supernatural events are not necessary as a cure for tribal society because native people do not begin by defining themselves as anything more or less than the indigenous inhabitants of a purely physical and material universe.
What seems most true to us is that the world can exist in only one of two possible modes: either it is material and composed of matter; or it is immaterial and composed of nothing at all. Since it is obvious that the universe has a material existence, something that Christian ideology acknowledges, even if it insists that the world's physical and material reality is something that flawed creatures must contemn, and since people are material entities as well, we have always accepted the evidence before us, have always resisted the impulse of longing to be other than we are, and have always endeavored instead, intellectually and spiritually, to find the best and most efficient way to live out our lives in the world that we inhabit. Christian thinkers have always searched for ways to make both people and the world they inhabit more than it and they can possibly be or become. They claim, for instance, that the desire they experience to have more than they actually do is a good thing, that longing for more than a material reality elevates the human spirit out of its "creatureliness" and into a realm where matter becomes infused with soul, whatever that is, which makes them over into a material entity that also possesses as its most significant feature that which is immaterial and hence composed of nothing at all. Desire and longing for that which you do not have is greed. Greed does not elevate the human spirit. Greed debases it.
Christian ideology also claims that the universe, which they see as composed of both material and immaterial elements, having it both ways as it were, and mostly because that description of the world is so profoundly illogical, if not ridiculous, demonstrates in some irrefutable way that God, as its creator, must surely exist. What this says, of course, is that, if you define the world as a thing that cannot possibly exist because it is composed of contradictory elements that cannot possibly adhere to one another in any conceivable way, it proves the existence of a Creator who was unable to conceive of a universe composed of elements that fit logically and coherently together in the first place. God, then, as a kind of idiot-engineer, incapable of comprehending how material elements go together in logical and coherent structures, created a universe instead that cannot possibly exist so that His equally flawed and mangled human creatures would be able to tell that He exists by virtue of the chthonic-cosmic magic necessary to hold it and them together in the same flawed construct. While it might be inappropriate to call this view of the world insane, it is true that such descriptions of it refuse to accept even the most obvious evidence to the contrary.
What is significant about Bloch's argument is its anti-scientific bias. He claims, for instance, that the TRUTH (I capitalize it here to indicate that he refers to God's immutable Word and not just ordinary validity) can only be ascertained when human longing (greed for that which we do not have) is "set against the empirical, beyond its satanic night and especially beyond its night of incognito." Just before this assertion Bloch says that the "existing world is the world of the past," and that it has become nothing more than the "despiritualized object of science." Bloch's objection to science, apart from the fact that it is necessary in order to preserve the illogical ground on which Christian myth is based, flows naturally, like a river, along the channel of time-honored tradition that has always seen Christian thinkers decry, belittle, and denounce, any and all other ideologies, philosophy included and especially so, that pose any threat at all to the absurdity of its precepts. Logic is an enemy to mystery. Facts always tend to contradict claims formulated by mystics. What can be seen and verified almost never corresponds to what is invisible, hidden, sealed away in the all-powerful and all-knowing mind of God. And, of course, were it not for the fact that human beings were given an immortal soul by their Creator, we would not even be aware of His existence, aware of the fact that He stands both ready, willing and able, to destroy everything He has created for some reason or another, perhaps only because he can, which generally escapes my comprehension as much as anything else about the myth has always done. Bloch says that "this world is an error, and void; in the face of absolute truth it has only the right to be destroyed" (228).
Native American creation stories have a different view of such things. Most of them are centered on the idea, not that man was created, but that he emerged into an already existing space and time. Those that do include the notion of creationism follow a pattern unlike Eurocentric myth in several important ways. None I know begin with the assertion that nothing at all exists before the spirits of creation initiate the task of formulating the world. Creation-spirits are not omnipotent and infallible. Most of them need help. One myth claims that two spirits decided to create the world. They were floating on a vast ocean at the time and had no material out of which to fashion land. They called Turtle to assist them. He dived to the bottom of the ocean and returned with mud. The spirits used that to fashion the world. Another story says that creator-spirits decided to create man. Their only objective was to fashion a being who could speak well enough to praise them for their efforts. They required nothing else. They used sticks and mud to make the first people. After a while it became obvious that these people could not stand upright in the rain and were also unable to speak clearly. The spirits acknowledged their error, allowed rain to create a flood, and destroyed their first attempt at creating a being capable of praising their efforts. They tried again later; failed a second time because they used only wood, and brought fire down to destroy that effort. They finally managed to create people who could talk to them and praise their efforts. These spirits were nothing like God.
An important distinction between European and native American people is that we do not suspend our thought processes for 2000 years out of fear we might see or hear something that contradicts our view of reality. Instead we listen carefully to the ideas of the other in case they stumble across a possibility that might enhance our comprehension of the universe. Science, for instance, has told us that matter has always existed, that, in fact, matter cannot cease to exist but can only be converted into energy. We also know, of course, by the same principle, that energy cannot cease to exist either but can only be converted into matter. This formula was expressed by Albert Einstein as E = MC2. This idea, which has never been refuted, but is routinely ignored by people who do not like what it implies, suggests that we have always been correct in assuming that the world has always been "here," that the world was not created before we came to populate it.
With respect, then, to the idea that the existence of the universe somehow proves the existence of its Creator, that the fact of its being "here" makes a Creator necessary, I would argue exactly the opposite conclusion from those same facts. Since matter has always existed (Tertullian's refutation of Hermogenes notwithstanding), since it is not sensible to say that first there was nothing but then suddenly matter was created, an idea that contradicts E = MC2, there is no place and no reason to claim that a Creator is a necessary cause of the universe. What is also true and inescapable is that once matter exists it must behave in a certain way. Science has clearly outlined over the last four or five centuries precisely what the rules are that govern the way in which bodies of matter interact in gravitational systems and fields over the course of time. Since the sun has a particular mass, it generates a particular gravitational field. The earth, with its particular mass, along with the other planets in the solar system, each with its own particular mass, must necessarily fall into a particular orbit around the object that determines the shape and ultimate contour of the gravitational field. The rules governing those orbits are both known and fixed by the specific details of the forces that determine the way in which bodies of matter behave. Those rules have been in place forever, since matter has always existed.
The point here is that God is not a necessary cause of the shape of the solar system; that shape and contour is inevitable by virtue of the pre-existing rules that govern the interactions between and among the objects of mass that were draw together by the gravitational field generated by the sun. As it happened, the relationship between the mass of the sun and the mass of the earth determined that the latter would come to rest 93,000,000 miles from the sun in an elliptical orbit that required 365.2422 days for its completion. As it also happened, the earth's mass was such that it generated a gravitational field capable of holding an atmosphere somewhere between 6 and 12 miles deep, depending on where you decide a term like "atmosphere" applies, which came to be composed of various kinds and concentrations of organic gases, like nitrogen and oxygen. Since there was also hydrogen in that atmosphere, water was also formed. As it also happened, the sun burned with a particular temperature, creating light and heat, which warmed the earth to a particular temperature, by virtue of its distance from the source. Because of the particular elements that comprised the conditions that existed on the earth, including but not limited to, its own gravitational field, the precise way in which solar energy reacted with and within the earth's electro-magnetic field, the fluctuation of it lowest and highest seasonal temperatures, the kinds of elements of which it was composed, and so on and so forth, it happened that certain kinds of chemical reactions occurred which gave rise to compounds capable of reproducing themselves. Life happened. At the present time, and only because of a total lack of sure knowledge, people tend to believe that this purely physical reality is excessively rare, even totally unique; however, given the fact we have never seen another physical object exactly situated from its sun in the way that the earth is, it is just as likely that this process is completely commonplace. The point here is that there is no single fact to support either view-is life unique or common in the universe?-there is no fact to support either and both assertions, therefore, rise only to the level of pure speculation. This is a question that can be asked and pondered but it is not one that can be answered.
What is obvious about this description of the world is that it contradicts in every way imaginable the "creation theory" generated by Christianity to explain how anything came to be the way it is. This view is so opposed to creationism that Bloch claims science has "despiritualized" the world, that the world is an "error," that it has "only the right to be destroyed." The scientific view of the universe only describes a reasonable, sensible, fact-based process that completely contradicts the notion that it came to be out of "error" and that it not only will be eradicated but that it also must be destroyed.
Something that may not be quite so obvious in the scientific view of the universe is that its basic premises do not contradict the native American view of reality in any way whatsoever. Put as simply and directly as possible, the two spirits credited with creating the world by sending Turtle down to the bottom of the ocean for mud were called "gravity" and "electro-magnetic energy." Spirit in tribal belief refers to any natural force (wind, lightening, rain, etc.) that has any effect whatsoever on the processes of life in the material universe. The world is a material reality, everything in it is composed of matter, matter behaves in a certain way, the natural forces that determine that behavior are called spirits by native Americans and most other tribal people. Science, therefore, has not "despiritualized" the world; rather, it has simply provided a secondary vocabulary with which to identify and comprehend the way in which all living things are related to each other. Unlike creationist ideologies, unlike Christianity, which is threatened to the very core of its belief system by scientific knowledge, primarily because it is fundamentally irrational, native belief systems have only benefited from our expanding knowledge of the universe by gaining an additional language with which to describe and understand the physical processes that determine how best and most effectively people live in the real world. We do not shun and deny our physical natures, believing that "soul" makes us better than every other entity on the face of the earth; instead, we embrace our inescapable material reality, "soul-less" as it were, but fully animated by spirit, in a never-ending effort to live better than we have done before. A first step in that journey is accepting the gift of our individual mortality by not wasting a single moment of its opportunity in a quest for what can never be. It is our nature to be here and then to be gone. Since there is no exception to that rule, the only thing that can be said to last forever is that which never existed in the first place.