Monday, October 20, 2008

Readings: Zeitgeisted

Another book that I’m currently nibbling my way through in small, but nourishing bites is Young Man Luther: a Study in Psychoanalysis and History, by Erik H. Erikson. Normally, I have but scant regard for psychoanalytic theory; particularly Freudian theory, which I feel has been largely dismissed as over-wrought bullshit by this juncture. If I want to contemplate psychological theory from the formative years, I much prefer that of Jung. It was, therefore, my interest in Luther that led me to grab this book out of used book bin at a public library sale.

All of that said I am enjoying the reading of it. Erikson writes in a fluid style; is clearly an excellent historical scholar, and I find his ideas to be engaging. One of the concepts that Erikson deploys in his study of Luther’s personal development is that of the moratorium:

Societies, knowing that young people can change rapidly even in their most intense devotions, are apt to give them a moratorium, a span of time after they have ceased being children, but before their deeds and works count toward a future identity.

Erikson is the man who gave us the term “identity crisis.” This becomes most relevant to his exploration of just what made Luther tick. But as I read the following passage, it occurred to me that it seemed to have special relevance to my generation—the so-called Boomers—or at least, to that sub-cultural segment of the generation in the midst of which I spent my formative years:

It is probable that in all historical periods some—and by no means the least gifted—young people do not survive their moratorium; they seek death or oblivion, or die in spirit. Martin must have seen such death of mind and spirit in some of his brethren, and came to feel close to it more than once. Those who face the abyss only to disappear we will, of course, never know; and once in a while we should shed a tear for those who took some unborn protest, some unformed idea, and sometimes just one lonely soul, with them. They chose to face nothingness rather than submit to a faith that, to them, had become a cant of pious words; a collective will, that cloaked only collective impotence; a conscience which expended itself in a stickling for empty forms; a reason that was a chatter of commonplaces; and a kind of work that was meaningless busy-work. I am speaking of those “outsiders” who go their lone way, not those who come back to poison the world further with a mystical literature which exhorts man to shun reality and stay outside, like Onan.

I had many a friend who looked into that abyss of “empty forms” and were horrified when the abyss looked back at them. As it has shaken down, the antidote seems to have been to become a little less like John Lennon and a little more like John McCain.