Issues analysis
Man cannot live without truth
June 15, 2009
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

People are searching for the meaning of life as much now as they ever did. However, meaning is harder to find today because of a very tough skepticism in today's world about whether there is such a thing as truth. I like to call this the "acid bath of skepticism."

Two earmarks of the present postmodern culture are hostility to truth of any kind, and the acid bath of skepticism. In contrast, the American modernism of the 1950's and 60's involved a skepticism towards metaphysics and transcendent theology. However, moderns of that day generally accepted the idea that men must employ reason, must base their reason on presuppositions, and must have a world view. They did not automatically rule out the idea of truth or of a moral law. If the leaders of that era had not believed these things, they could not have been the greatest generation.

The baby boomers brought in a hyper-skeptical postmodernism that is openly hostile to reason, presuppositions, world views, truth, and the moral law. Nothing remotely hinting at truth is tolerated in postmodern culture. The grand hypocrisy of the postmoderns is that they make a great hullabaloo about tolerance, yet are fiercely intolerant of those who speak about truth.

As we shall see, without truth there can be no sustainable meaning in life. Man cannot endure the trials of life if life has no meaning. Therefore, man cannot live without truth. When truth disappears, man despairs. As we shall see, a secret despair lies behind the pathologies of postmodern societies such as exist in Europe.

European barrenness

The birth rates in Europe have fallen so low that some nationalities are in danger of going extinct. What is the cause of this? Is the advanced education and careerism of women the cause? It must be a contributing cause, of course. However, it is not likely that this cause alone could push European birth rates so far below the replacement rates. Academic and careerist women who long for children usually find a way to have them.

The decline of marriage and the increase of cohabitation is another secondary contributing cause of the dearth of babies. Unmarried couples have less motivation to have children than married couples do.

We know that academics, careerism, and cohabitation are not the primary causes of the famine of babies because young married European women who have neither academic nor careerist interests seldom have more than one child.

A hatred of babies?

I wonder if abortion has brought about a hatred of babies and children. We teach ourselves to hate those we have wronged, so that we will feel better about having wronged them. During the era of slavery and Jim Crow, the white community ginned up a lot of hostility toward blacks. It was easier to hate than to face up to a guilty conscience. As the Nazis started to kill the Jews, they systematically trained themselves to hate Jews.

During this age of the abortion holocaust, has there been an increase in anger and hatred against babies and children? I cannot prove it, but my delicate antennae tell me that there is an irrational, free-floating rage against babies and children out there. This rage did not exist in the 60's or before. After all, it is easier to rage against babies than to face the guilt of murdering them in the womb.

The hatred of babies and children surely must be an important contributing cause of the birth dearth in Europe. However, we have not yet worked our way to the taproot cause of the baby bust, which feeds into all the secondary causes.

Without natural affection

In all the categories of European woman mentioned above, the desire to have children has gone down drastically. God designed women to desire to have children. Therefore, it is unnatural for women not to want children. The Bible lists several attributes of those with a reprobate mind, and one of them is that they are "without natural affection." Healthy young women with natural affection usually want children. Women without natural affection usually do not. What then is the cause of the loss of natural affection?

I think the core problem is despair brought on by postmodernism. Men and women in despair cannot face the burdens and sacrifices of bringing forth and nourishing new life. Just getting through the day is the best they can do. They do not have enough vitality left over to nourish and exercise the natural affections.

Before I proceed on this theme, I must provide an answer for the Bible students among my readers who might disagree with my theory that despair is the cause of the lack of natural affection.

When iniquity shall abound

During Christ's prophesy about the last days, he said: "because iniquity shall abound the love of many shall grow cold" (Matthew 24:12). My theory does not contradict what Christ is saying here.

Postmodernism's intolerance for truth is especially hostile to moral laws pertaining to sex. Therefore, sexual iniquity has abounded in this era. The postmodern sympathy for homosexuality is really a sympathy for the unrestrained and promiscuous hyper-sexuality and continuous experimentation with perversions which is typical of the gays who are highly visible due to their exhibitionism. The characteristic flip, breezy, hip, smug, and irreverent narcissism of such gays accords well with the reprobate mind of postmodernism.

Those in postmodern despair, whether gay or straight, often depend upon a steady diet of illicit sex to distract them from despair.

A sexually obsessed man at work put his pin-up girls on the walls of an office where ten people worked. I took the pinups down. He had a hysterical temper tantrum, along with a violent acting out right in the office. The extreme reaction was what I would expect if I took heroin away from an addict. In hindsight, I think the pinups got him through the day by distracting him from despair.

Thus, iniquity shall abound and love shall grow cold as Christ predicted, and it is no accident that this is happening at the time of a general despair.

Postmodernism and despair

Proposition 1: Despair is at the root of the lack of natural affection of Europeans. When despair is intense enough, it can lead to the lack of the will to live, and to suicide. A less severe kind of despair can lead to the loss of interest in bringing forth the children of the next generation. Through this means, the Europeans are committing cultural and racial suicide.

Proposition 2: Postmodernism is the cause of European despair. Postmodernism rules out the possibility of propositional truth, universal truth, and transcendent truth.

Postmodernism is far more extensive in Europe than it is in America, because it came to Europe more than forty years before it came to America. (It came to Europe in the early 20's. It came to America in the late 60's.) Another factor is that Europe had weaker defenses against postmodernism because the decay of Christianity has gone much further in Europe than in America.

Proposition 3: Without truth, it is impossible to have sustainable meaning in life. Without meaning, men and women despair.

Man's search for meaning

Viktor Frankl (1905–1997) wrote a book, Man's Search for Meaning (1956), which is about Jews in a Nazi concentration camp who were struggling with despair.

Many of the Jews who were athletes or robust muscular types died at once. The athletes and physically robust persons had a high level of body consciousness, and their lives were heavily invested in their bodies. When their bodies were subjected to intolerable abuse and were reduced to abject wretchedness — and they realized that there was no escape from their bodily misery — they despaired and died.

In sharp contrast to the physically robust Jews, some of the frail, wizened, and emaciated Jews lived on and on. Each of the frail survivors focused their minds on something outside the concentration camp. One of them did mathematical equations in his head day and night. Another meditated on scripture passages he had memorized. Some focused on beautiful things such as music, art, poetry, and literature. Frankl focused upon his beautiful and beloved wife. These mental exercises brought a measure of escape and relief from the horrors of the camp and imparted meaning to their lives, and therefore they had the will to live.

How did they hang on?

Can we explain the mental discipline of the Jewish prisoners to a heroic will? No. A heroic will is only needed to hang on to something ephemeral. The subjects the Jews chose for mental focus were solid and real to them — because in most cases the subjects were grounded in truth.

An experience has solid meaning if it confirms a truth. An experience fades away like a mirage if it is not grounded in truth. An experience lasts for a moment, but truth lasts forever.

Some of my readers assume I have a phenomenal memory. Not so. Like the rest of you, I remember what is important to me. Concepts are important to me. Why? In my late teens, the love of truth sometimes came upon me with a fiery passion that burned in my heart. At that time, I learned to regard concepts as precious treasures. Since then I have seldom forgotten a concept. If a concept is rooted in truth, I sometimes have almost total recall. I can sometimes remember the details associated with learning the concept, the philosopher who propounded the concept, and the circumstances of the emergence of the concept into history.

It is unremarkable that a woman remembers the color of shoes she was wearing when her husband proposed and the dress she was wearing at her wedding shower. She is remembering the contextual details of events that are precious to her. My memory works the same way, except that what I care about is different.

The Jews in the concentration camp did not have much trouble remembering things that were important to them. When what they remembered was grounded in truth, they had almost total recall and did not have to struggle to bring them to mind.

True Love

Frankl was the exception among the Jewish survivors. He was the only one who survived by thinking about a person he loved. His experience proves that love can be an extraordinarily powerful life-giving force.

However, the romantic writers warn us that "true love" is rare. Most of the Jewish men in the camp were married, but Frankl was the only one who was truly in love with his wife. It appears that only a small proportion of men can find enduring meaning in life through romantic love. Most men require something else that is special to them that can be grounded in truth.

Sorry wives, true love is rare — but that in no way implies that your marriage is not a good one. Don't rake your husband over the coals if he is not captivated by true love for you. That is an unreasonable expectation. Just make sure you both have meaning in life and that you are faithful to each other and take care of one another.

Ladies, don't envy women who have found true love. Marriages founded upon true love can be exceedingly stormy and troubled, as was the marriage of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. The end of the story of true love might not be "they lived happily ever after." It might be "they sailed on stormy seas until they were shipwrecked." Neither Ava nor Frank ever fully recovered from the shipwreck of the love of their life. C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, "When love becomes a god it turns into a devil."

The world needs love — or does it?

The romantic movement attempted to convince Western man that our problem is that there is not enough love out there. This old idea was recapped in the popular song What the World Needs Now Is Love (1965, Jackie DeShannon, Burt Bacharach).

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) had a radical view of love. In his Inferno, he assigned a place of punishment for every conceivable category of sin. Dante, who was a remarkably astute student of theology, defined each kind of sin as a disordered love. For example, there were inordinate loves, idolatrous loves, perverse loves, perverted loves, unfaithful loves, treacherous loves, deceived loves, divided loves, forbidden loves, and so forth. The failure to love God was not caused by the lack of love, but the diversion of love to idols or to less worthy objects.

Man, even in his fallen state, is driven about by a plethora of loves. In the Inferno, "carnal malefaction" is punished by a dark hurricane that never rests. The condemned are whirled "hither, thither, downward" by the passions of dark winds within them. Although Dante intended this image to represent the upheavals of sexual lusts run amok, it is an excellent image of the many untamed loves that whirl about like a hurricane in the human heart.

O sinner, when will you find rest? As St. Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in thee."

Man's great difficulty is controlling and ordering his loves aright. Man does not need more love to whirl like a hurricane within him. He needs more truth. He needs to tame and anchor his loves according to truth. Love without truth is like a train that has run off the tracks.

The suicide of a young postmodern writer

What the surviving Jews in the camps achieved could not be done by postmodern Europeans today, because they have no way to ground their experiences in truth.

When I was in chemotherapy for five hours, I read a New Yorker article about a journey inside the mind of David Foster Wallace (1963–2009), a postmodern author who committed suicide. I read it in order to do research for this essay. It was the longest magazine article I have ever read and it kept me in a state of muddled misery for a good deal of the time. Reading it was like joining Dante for a stroll through the inferno. Dante will have to add another ring to the funnel of hell, because they did not have postmodern despair in the early 14th century. Wallace was a man in hell before his time and a pioneer of new kinds of hell.

Wallace at age 18 was already contemplating suicide. He periodically thought about suicide until he hanged himself at age 46.

Wallace had great success as a published author. Although I regard his writings as utter nonsense, the postmodern literary world in New York thinks he was a genius. If you want a migraine headache, read his 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest.

Academic success came easy to Wallace, for his aptitude for math and linguistics was remarkable. To me, his story is about the waste of a potentially great mind. He was in and out of academia throughout his adult life. He was also often in and out of detoxification centers and halfway houses.

Wallace killed himself in spite of great success as a published author. He was interviewed by Pete Rose on TV. Obviously, success and celebrity status did not bring a meaning to his life that was sufficient to cure his chronic despair. Success and fame are notoriously evanescent and cannot be nailed down like truth.

Some writers despair because of writer's block. Not Wallace. To the end of his life, he could disgorge his impressions on paper with maniacal speed and keep at it for many hours at a stretch. I can understand how he could make his editor want to commit suicide — but his productivity should have been encouraging to Wallace. Unfortunately, it was not encouraging enough to save him.

Postmodern rules and taboos

Why could not Wallace divert himself from despair with the fancies of the mind? He had a more powerful imagination than some of the Jews in the prison camp who successfully diverted themselves from despair through the mind.

Wallace had a postmodern value system or, more accurately, an anti-value system. Anything that was traditional or conventionally comforting was ruled out. Only novel impressions or new fads could be considered. Nothing that could be grounded in truth was acceptable.

There is something infantile in all this. The shiny new ornament on the Christmas tree is the object of complete attention, while all else is blanked out. We were all postmodern at age three.

Postmoderns live in an acid bath of skepticism. Anything that is redolent with metaphysics or is noble according to old values is cast aside with disgust. According to historian James Elkins, if postmodern art deals with religion, it must be done in an ironic, ambiguous, skeptical, or critical fashion.

Narcissism enthroned

According to historian and author James Hitchcock, "[P]ostmodernism has been the systematic unmasking of all claims to self-evident truths — religious beliefs are held as irrational, the family as repressive, democracy as a cover for privileged interests — and in each case a continued commitment to traditional beliefs would require people to transcend themselves as the focal point of the universe." In other words, anything that would threaten their narcissism is taboo.

Hitchcock describes how postmoderns are at war with the idea of eternity and the idea of history. They have nothing ahead of them and nothing behind them — in short, nothing greater than themselves to threaten the sovereignty and supremacy of their inflated selves. "Traditional grand narratives — religious narratives, patriotism, freedom" are to be discredited and dismissed. (See "Losing our Grips: on the Cultural Suicide of the Newly Enlightened," by James Hitchcock, Touchstone, May 2009.)

While reading Hitchcock, I suddenly understood the nature of the code of taboos in postmodernism. Everything is forbidden that might be a threat to narcissism. Postmodernism is a cocoon to protect the almighty me, to prevent the illusions of the inflated self as a god from being exposed.

Our soft, rich, pampered way of life with its emphasis on self-esteem and self-actualization has bred a race of monsters!

But if postmodernism allows one to pump himself up, why does it bring that person to despair? First of all. the illusions of the almighty self are extremely vulnerable and unstable and can come crashing down suddenly. Secondly, the whole world hates the narcissist and his illusions. Finally, the protective cocoon of postmodernism prevents truth from penetrating the shell. Therefore, the postmodern cannot find meaning in life.

Futile diversions

With all these taboos, the postmodernist is sealed off in isolation from the realm of large, meaningful things and lives a fragmented and fluctuating existence. Such an existence drives sensitive souls like Wallace to despair. Therefore, tremendous energy is devoted to diversions from despair.

Wallace was very critical of his fellow postmodern narcissists for becoming addicted to entertainment such as movies, television, video games, and the internet as diversions from despair. He did not mince his words about the futility and stupidity of such diversions. It is finally clear to me why so many unwatchable movies make money. A movie that is diverting for postmoderns might be a crashing bore for a normal person. An award-winning movie about the explorer Cabeza De Vaca devoted an entire minute to a close up of De Vaca's Adam's Apple bouncing up and down when he was tortured. This was followed by five minutes of a berserk witch doctor fluttering and hovering over him. Postmoderns are diverted by this stuff, but to me it is as intolerably boring as Chinese water torture.

Wallace accepted the need for diversions from despair, but he insisted that it had to be the right kind of diversion. He devoted a great portion of the energies of his life seeking such diversions and showing others through his writing how to use such diversions. These "legitimate" diversions come from the kingdom of the self and fill the imagination. They are not passive diversions as is public entertainment. The search for these "legitimate" diversions is a key to understanding Wallace's writing.

A shaky start

Wallace got off to a shaky start in his teen years, diverting himself from despair with sugary treats and masturbation. I had intended not to mention this uncleanness, but it is important for the reader to understand that unclean sex has become an important diversion from despair for many narcissistic postmoderns. That is why Hollywood is so obsessed with offbeat sex.

Wallace graduated to alcohol and drugs for diversion from despair. Therefore, he made frequent trips to rehabilitation clinics and halfway houses for the rest of his life.

For a while, he used mathematics as a diversion. For a genius like Wallace, total immersion in mathematics can give one a better buzz than drugs. I wonder if this was the case for Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash. Nash was a schizophrenic, which means that he suffered great personal pain. Like one of the Jews in the concentration camp, I suspect that Nash escaped personal pain through mathematics.

Subsequently, Wallace discovered the flow of consciousness as an impressionistic flow-of-consciousness writer. This worked better for him than anything else. But in the end, it failed him.

Writing as therapy

Wallace's writing as therapy reminds me of Jackson Pollock's art as therapy. Like Wallace, Pollock abused alcohol, had a lot of psychiatric therapy, and committed suicide. Pollock's abstract impressionist "art" (paint drippings) reminds me of Wallace's flow of consciousness "literature" (impressions randomly spewed onto the page). The art of Wallace and Pollock are both about the welling up of feelings, impulses, and impressions. None of their works has a trace of rhyme nor reason in it. These impulsive impressions cannot be nailed down with truth and, therefore, must become meaningless in the end.

Wallace's fragmentary, meaningless ramblings and wanderings of a lost soul give me a headache. However, there is no doubt that millions of postmodern readers crave his stuff because it diverts them from the pain of life. It is better than watching De Vaca's Adam's Apple on the screen.

Certain extreme genres of hard rock, acid rock, and heavy metal music are an escape from pain for drug addicts and alcoholics. This music from hell came in with post modernism.

Both Wallace and Pollock committed suicide when their escape through art and literature failed them. In contrast, Jews in the concentration camps who used art and literature as their escape were successful.

Fickle fads

Wallace's fans are devilishly fickle. They are always flying off on some new postmodern fad. The postmodern book of yesterday is nowhere and nothing. The hot postmodern book of the moment is everything. Wallace had the rare knack of staying a little ahead of the crowd. He was always able to feed the circling pack with the kind of meat that they craved at that moment.

Since high school, I have hated and derided fads as mindless folly. Yet, I concede that there is such a thing as a fad master, and there is no doubt that Wallace was one of them. I don't understand how he did it, but his talent for being on the cutting edge of fads it the only conceivable explanation for how his blithering nonsense on paper could sell millions of copies. However, due to the fickleness of fads, in five years no one will read his books.

Interestingly, Wallace was not only early getting into a fad, but he was early to tire of a fad and start looking for another. Sometimes, he took a year or two off for therapy or to teach at a university, but when he got back in the book market, he seemed to understand where the lost and lonely postmoderns were and what they wanted.

The moral of the story

We learn three lessons from this story.

1) The postmodern war on truth has led to a dying society of despair in Europe. The same thing can happen here. The way we fight back is to defy the intimidation of postmoderns and become people of truth. Each of us should pray to God to kindle the love of truth in our hearts. Truth is powerful, and postmodernism is flimsy. Be a powerful warrior for truth and make the knees of the postmoderns tremble in fear.

2) Postmodernism is all about narcissism. Learn to rise above your egocentric self and become caught up in something greater than yourself.

3) Every mortal life is beset with trials. Learn to distract yourself from pain by reading great poetry or classic literature or philosophy that can be grounded in truth. Enjoy great works of art or classical music. Don't indulge in trashy diversions. Read some history to gain perspective on the affairs of men. Blow the dust off your Bible and dig in deep.


A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica analysts generally reflect the VALUES AND PHILOSOPHY of RenewAmerica — although each writer is responsible for the accuracy of individual pieces, and the position taken is the writer’s own.
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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31