As part of my Cage research, I’m reading Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy (1945), which Douglas Kahn (in “John Cage: Silence and Silencing,” in the Winter, 1997, Musical Quarterly) claims Cage read shortly before writing 4’33”. I don’t recall Cage ever mentioning Huxley in his writings; I’d be interested if someone can point me to an instance. Kahn certainly makes a good case for Huxley’s influence, which is similar to Coomaraswamy’s in this respect.
But what moves me to buh-loggg today is a passage in the chapter “Religion and Temperament.” The book is a survey and comparison of the great religious traditions, with their commonalities drawn out via copious quotation. As implied, the chapter in question deals with the observation that religious experience is highly dependent on personal temperament; that despite the one-sidedness of certain religious expressions, the path to Truth is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. According to Huxley, the world’s religions have implicitly acknowledged three types of character. Few people are purely one type, and most of us have a mixture, but here, with their defining characteristics, are the three extremes he outlines, with an exotic terminology from I don’t know where:
viscerotonic: “indiscriminate amiability and love of people as such; fear of solitude and craving for company; uninhibited expression of emotion;… craving for affection and social support….”
somatotonic: “love of muscular activity, aggressiveness, and lust for power; indifference to pain; callousness with regard to other people’s feelings; a love of combat and competitiveness; a high degree of physical courage….”
cerebrotonic: “the over-alert, over-sensitive introvert, who is more concerned with what goes on behind his eyes… than with that external world… Cerebretonics have little or no desire to dominate… they want to live and let live and their passion for privacy is intense… For him the ultimate horror is the boarding school and the barracks….”
That “boarding school and barracks” line pinpointed me as a stereotypical cerebrotonic in short order. Going through the world’s religions, Huxley outlines which ones offer more sustenance to, and are more congenially followed by, each of these three temperaments. All very interesting, perhaps questionable, but what struck me was his closing statement (and remember this was written in 1945, as the war was just winding down):
Nazi education, which was specifically education for war, had two principal aims: to encourage the manifestation of somatotonia in those most richly endowed with that component of personality, and to make the rest of the population feel ashamed of its relaxed amiability or its inward-looking sensitiveness and tendency toward self-restraint and tender-mindedness. During the war the enemies of Nazism have been compelled, of course, to borrow from the Nazi’s educational philosophy. All over the world millions of young men and even of young women are being systematically educated to be “tough” and to value “toughness” beyond every other moral quality. With this system of somatotonic ethics is associated the idolatrous and polytheistic theology of nationalism – a pseudo-religion far stronger at the present time for evil and division than is Christianity, or any other monotheistic religion, for unification and good. In the past most societies tried systematically to discourage somatotonia. This was a measure of self-defense; they did not want to be physically destroyed by the power-loving aggressiveness of their most active minority, and they did not want to be spiritually blinded by an excess of extraversion. During the last few years all this has been changed. What, we may apprehensively wonder, will be the result of the current world-wide reversal of an immemorial social policy? Time alone will show. (pp. 160-161, emphasis added)
Time alone, indeed. As an explanation for Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, the Bush administration, and the neocons, this is insufficient; it would account for their love of bullying and contempt for perceived weakness, but not their unfathomable venality, mendacity, and hypocrisy (where were “courageous men of aggressive action” when New Orleans was drowning?). But the rhetorical emphasis on “toughness” is certainly an oversized component of our political discourse, and I think we as Americans – especially since Reagan’s 1980 election – have often been made ashamed to loudly voice sympathetic or altruistic impulses. And I can imagine Cage, a self-described “sissy” who was so often beaten up by bullies as a child, finding personal resonance here.
Corey Dargel says
I would add that perhaps people who fall into the category of viscerotonic (slightly hippy-dippy, etc.) and cerebrotonic (slightly paranoid, etc.) believe in, and value, a subjective reality, whereas the people who fall into the category of somatotonic (power-hungry, etc.) believe in, and value, an objective reality. Maybe there’s a comparison to the left and the right there, too.
America’s somatotonia problem is far too pervasive to restrict to the Republican party, though it does represent the most public face of the phenomenon, and the one responsible for the most dire gobal consequences.
The callous tough guy is now considered the masculine ideal in working class America, moreso now than ever. Hip-hop culture has turned the word “thug” into a badge of honor. Youtube is awash with videos of teens brutally beating other teens. As testosterone-crazed as we were at age 18, my friends and I never casually referred to girls as “bitches and hoes”. This is now commonplace for this age group.
This trend has posibly gone unnoticed by those who don’t regularly interact with lower income Americans. Indeed, in middle-class America, the “metrosexual” and the “emo” have taken things in the opposite direction, valuing androgyny and emotional sensitivity. This is a good thing, but in the long run, these qualities must be tempered with courage and steadfastness. If this doesn’t happen, the over-submissiveness of the “sensitive guy” will lead to his extinction. The very assertiveness of the somatotonic will make his type the norm. If nothing else, this divergence of values will further alienate lower income Americans from the rest of society.
KG replies: Thanks for the alarming report. I have to think that some of this macho seeps down into the populace from the highest levels. I’ve noticed the local police in my rural area getting meaner and meaner, no longer even trying, for instance, to conceal their homophobia. And when I mentioned it to the guy at the liquor store, he countered, “Whaddaya expect when the government’s run by thugs?”
Jan Herman says
Fascinating. Much thanks!
kraig Grady says
Sounds like if you look like Mussorgsky or Silbelius you might be able to fake them out. Otherwise you can resort to grunting the likes of…,” Let’s go kick some serialist ass!”
David Cavlovic says
Just so you know:
1)I always thought there was a comonality of Nazism/Bushism “us vs. them”
2) They scare the crap out of me.
Glad I’m safe (for now) in Canada.
Doesn’t the American take on this actually come from the old British stiff upper lip view? We’ll evolve away from this eventually, it’s just taking us a little while…
Some, such as Christopher Lasch would argue that the real problems are the Ivy League universities and their veneer of open-mindedness and tolerance. See another example here:
Meanwhile, look to the Nazi party and its flirtation with eugenics for the inspiration for Margaret Sanger, our current abortion and birth-control movement, etc.
KG replies: Ha! So it’s Nazi-like to use condoms? Very clever, but I don’t think so. You must have really enjoyed Jonah Goldberg’s recent book. Thanks for crossing over.
Suffern Henessey says
Wow Phil what an insight on yourself. However it does not reflect middle class America or “lower income Americans”. You’d be suprised to find out that middle class teens regularly use the phrases you outlined and are often binging on drugs and violence. The emo and metrosexual come from all economic backgrounds and do not cluster in the middle class. It may be easier to spot the emo and metrosecual in the middle class in contrast to the jock. Jocks do cluster in middle class America and unfortunately the rugged tough guy image cluster around the tv on Sunday’s to watch football yell obscenities. Those who don’t value the Monday night tradition generally in middle class America are made to feel ashamed of not participating in what is being touted as an American tradition.