The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has been helpful to me in understanding why things are falling apart, and what might feasibly be done about it — this, as part of writing The Benedict Option. Bauman is known for his idea of “liquid modernity,” a theory that says the rate of change has become so accelerated in the contemporary world that no customs or institutions have time to solidify. It changes our perception of time, and our sense of moving through life.
Last night I read an essay of his called “From Pilgrim To Tourist” (PDF), in which he talks about how until fairly recently, Western man experienced his journey through life as a pilgrim. Christianity taught him that we are all wayfarers here in our earthly exile, but headed toward heaven or hell, based on decisions we make and things we do in our own life’s pilgrimage. And we are on pilgrimage together. Or were.
Experiencing life as a pilgrimage implied a couple of things: 1) that you had a destination, and 2) that the destination made it possible to measure the distance you have traveled. The pilgrim new that he could only be truly satisfied when he reached the destination, but the process of the journey formed the pilgrim’s identity. (W.H. Auden’s great pilgrimage poem Atlantis shows how this works.) Bauman says that if life is a pilgrimage, it makes sense to choose one’s destination early, because you can be fairly confident that the road ahead will be straight, or at least will be headed in the right direction, no matter how many twists and turns it involves. Bauman:
Delay of gratification, much as the momentary frustration it begot, was an energizing factor and the source of identity-building zeal in so far as it was coupled with the trust in the linearity and cumulativeness of time. The foremost strategy of life as pilgrimage, of life as identity-building, was ‘saving for the future,’ but saving for the future made sense as strategy only in so far as one could be sure that the future would reward the savings with interest and the bonus once accrued will not be withdrawn, that the savings will not be devalued before the bonus-distribution date or declared invalid currency; that what is seen today as capital will be seen the same way tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Pilgrims had a stake in the solidity of the world they walked; in a kind of world in which one can tell life as a continuous story, a ‘sense-making’ story, such a story makes each event the effect of the event before and the cause of the event after, each age a station on the road pointing towards fulfilment. The world of pilgrim — of identity-builders — must be orderly, determined, predictable, ensured; but above all, it must be a kind of world in which footprints are engraved for good, so that the trace and the record of past travels are kept and preserved. A world in which travelling may indeed be a pilgrimage. A world hospitable to the pilgrims.
Postmodernity — “liquid modernity” — is our condition today. Bauman doesn’t mention God, but it’s clear that losing God (that is, the God of the Bible, and with Him the eschatology that is the culmination of the Christian narrative) is at the bottom of the rapid fragmentation that has become liquid modernity. I don’t think it’s a matter of us losing God, then the world speeding up and fragmenting, or the world speeding up and fragmenting, causing us to lose the sense of the eternal and unchanging God. In truth, I think the process goes back and forth. In any case, here we are. Bauman again:
It soon transpired that the real problem is not how to build identity, but how to preserve it; whatever you may build in the sand is unlikely to be a castle. In a desert-like world it takes no great effort to blaze a trail — the difficulty is how to recognize it as a trail after a while. How to distinguish a forward march from going in circles, from eternal return? It becomes virtually impossible to patch the trodden stretches of sand into an itinerary — let alone into a plan for a lifelong journey.
Time ceases to be experienced like a river, says Bauman, but is rather nothing more than a series of ponds and pools — episodes that have no real connection to each other. The “horror” (Bauman’s word) of the new situation is that you can’t count on the work you do today counting for anything tomorrow. The only way to manage life successfully under these conditions is to avoid long-term commitments:
To refuse to be ‘fixed’ one way or the other. Not to get tied to the place. Not to wed one’s life to one vocation only. Not to swear consistency and loyalty to anything and anybody. Not to control the future, but to refuse to mortgage it: to take care that the consequences of the game do not outlive the game itself, and to renounce responsibility for such as do. To forbid the past to bear on the present. In short, to cut the present off at both ends, to sever the present from history, to abolish time in any other form but a flat collection or an arbitrary sequence of present moments; a continuous present.
Once disassembled and no more a vector, time no longer structures the space. On the ground, there is no more ‘forward’ and ‘backward’; it is just the ability not to stand still that counts. Fitness — the capacity to move swiftly where the action is and be ready to take in experiences as they come — takes precedence over health, that idea of the standard of normalcy and of keeping that standard stable and unscathed. All delay, including ‘delay of gratification,’ loses its meaning: there is no arrow-like time left to measure it.
And so the snag is no longer how to discover, invent, construct, assemble (even buy) an identity, but how to prevent it from sticking. Well constructed and durable identity turns from an asset into a liability. The hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity-building, but avoidance of fixation. [Emphasis mine — RD]
It is crucially important to remember that this is not merely the result of ideas having consequences. This is also about consequences shaping ideas. That is, the structure of our economy under globalist capitalism creates this social and psychological instability:
What possible purpose could the strategy of pilgrim-style ‘progress’ serve in this world of ours? In this world, not only have jobs-for-life disappeared, but trades and professions which have acquired the confusing habit of appearing from nowhere and vanishing without notice can hardly be lived as Weberian ‘vocations’ — and to rub salt into the wound, the demand for the skills needed to practise such professions seldom lasts as long as the time needed to acquire them. Jobs are no longer protected, and most certainly no better than the stability of places where they are practised; whenever the word ‘rationalization’ is pronounced, one knows for sure that the disappearance of further jobs and that all diligent work of construction may prove to be in vain; its allurement is the fact of not being bound by past trials, being never irrevocably defeated, always ‘keeping the options open’. The horror and the allurement alike make life-as-pilgrimage hardly feasible as a strategy and unlikely to be chosen as one. Not by many, anyway. And not with a great chance of success.
No consistent and cohesive life strategy emerges from the experience which can be gathered in such a world — none remotely reminiscent of the sense of purpose and the rugged determination of the pilgrimage. Nothing emerges from that experience but certain, mostly negative, rules of the thumb: do not plan your trips too long — the shorter the trip, the greater the chance of completing it; do not get emotionally attached to people you meet at the stopover — the less you care about them, the less it will cost you to move on; do not commit yourself too strongly to people, places, causes — you cannot know how long they will last or how long you will count them worthy of your commitment; do not think of your current resources as of capital — savings lose value fast, and the once-vaunted ‘cultural capital’ tends to turn in no time into cultural liability. Above all, do not delay gratification, if you can help it. Whatever you are after, try to get it now, you cannot know whether the gratification you seek today will still be gratifying tomorrow.
Sounds familiar, right? Seen in this conceptual framework, the concept of genderfluidity makes sense. I’m certainly not defending it; I think it’s insane. But you can see how growing up under the condition of liquid modernity, where the pilgrimage trail markers have been submerged, would incentivize radical experimentation, causing human identity to fragment and liquify. On the spiritual front, the Protean pseudo-faith called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the religious expression of liquid modernity.
Bauman says that liquid modernity has rendered the identity of “pilgrim” obsolete We are now “tourists,” people who flit from place to place, on a whim, consuming what pleasures we can find there without making any commitment to the place. Moving on when we get bored or things get tough. Truman Capote, in a beautiful piece of writing from 1948, captured the tourist’s perspective as beautifully as it possibly can be done:
In London a young artist said to me, “How wonderful it must be for an American traveling in Europe the first time; you can never be a part of it, so none of the pain is yours, you will never have to endure it — yes, for you there is only the beauty.”
Not understanding what he meant, I resented this; but later, after some months in France and Italy, I saw that he was right: I was not a part of Europe, I never would be. Safe, I could leave when I wanted to, and for me there was only the honeyed, hallowed air of beauty. But it was not so wonderful as the young man had imagined: it was desperate to feel that one could never be a part of moments so moving, that always one would be isolated from this landscape and these people; and then gradually I realized I did not have to be a part of it: rather, it could be a part of me. The sudden garden, opera night, wild children snatching flowers and running up a darkening street, a wreath for the dead and nuns in noon light, music from the piazza, a Paris pianola and fireworks on La Grande Nuit, the heart-shaking surprise of mountain visions and water views (lakes like green wine in the chalice of volcanoes, the Mediterranean flickering at the bottoms of cliffs), forsaken far-off towers falling in twilight and candles igniting the jeweled corpse of St. Zeno of Verona — all a part of me, elements for the making of my own perspective.
There is an element of pilgrimage in this. Seeing the aesthetic wonders of Europe does change his perspective, and helps to create his identity. But Capote has no skin in the game. Because he avoids the pain — because he is free to leave when it comes time to suffer — he is at his core a tourist, not a pilgrim. The willingness to suffer for the sake of the destination is what makes the difference, I think.
It has not escaped my notice that Bauman’s “tourist” is the kind of person St. Benedict, in his Rule, describes as the worst kind of monk: one who moves from monastery to monastery, guided only by his whims. This kind of monk (he calls them “gyrovagues”) cannot make any progress in the spiritual life, and are a danger to those who wish to do so. They are dilettantes, restless aesthetes, and to be avoided. Benedict writes:
These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills, succumb to the allurements of gluttony, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. Of the miserable conduct of all such, it is better to be silent than to speak.
What would it look like to have an entire culture, indeed a civilization, defined by gyrovaguery? If it were wealthy and technologically sophisticated, it would look like our own.
For a believing Christian, to allow oneself to be formed by gyrovaguery — to become a tourist instead of a pilgrim — is to lose the story that tells us who we are, where we are headed, and what we must do to get there. The world calls this liberation. We must call it slavery, and resist it.