Dao Du Jour II, Day 69: Immense (Culture) Wars of the Spirit

Chapter 69: Using Mystery

“The expert in warfare says:
Rather than dare make the attack
I’d take the attack;
Rather than dare advance an inch
I’d retreat a foot.
Being armed without weapons,
Giving the attacker no opponent.
Nothing’s worse than attacking what yields.
To attack what yields is to throw away the prize.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

There is a war going on, but not the one you think.

Yes, there is the kinetic war in Ukraine. Yes, it is part of a broader conflict we can fairly call a new Cold War between Russian and the West. Yes, that is part of a deeper struggle between democratic and authoritarian capitalism. Yes, overlapping with this is a Code War, a #spacerace to gain dominance in information and disinformation technologies. And yes, at an even subtler level, it is all part of the Hot War—a planetary drama about resources, energy, and the climate. What do you think powers all those computers?

But at the subtlest level, we are in a spiritual war. Not exactly the kind of cosmic battle between angels and demons that some Christians are convinced they are caught within—though the stakes are as high. What we casually call the culture wars are the tips of an iceberg, the fronts in a titanic struggle between different worldviews and value systems jousting for supremacy. In the late 19th century, Nietzsche presciently prophesied “immense wars of the spirit.”

It is easy, and psychologically convenient, to read ancient musings about military strategy as quaint and outdated paeans to pacificism. Beyond this, it is a defense mechanism with which the modern mind tries to protect itself against the brutality of existence. As Nietzsche’s “last man,” surveying the sweep of history, says, “Formerly all the world was mad.” We moderns, we who have “invented happiness,” are safe, secure, and sane, untroubled by the fever dreams that beset our primitive ancestors. This conceit is a kind of unconscious attack on the past, and on the piece of it that is part of ourselves. Only the most deluded dreamer feels the need to insist he is awake. The more awake you are, the harder it is to recognize that you’re still dreaming. The more historical distance a people gets from a catastrophic war, the greater the temptation it faces to conclude it has passed into the grey isles of perpetual peace.

Max Weber unconsciously fit the mold of Nietzsche’s last man in declaring that the modern world was “disenchanted,” that it had abandoned magic, myth, and mystery. But post-modern thinkers know better. Bruno Latour insists that “we have never been modern,” in the sense that the modern project is just another story we are telling ourselves. From a different perspective, Eugene McCarraher in The Enchantments of Mammon suggests that modernity is deeply religious in that capitalism has mutated beyond a mere economic system to become a total worldview. We have not woken up, we are just dreaming differently. The “real world,” in Nietzsche’s phrase, becomes a fable.

This is the position of the postmodern dreamer. She sees that history is, to tweak James Joyce’s phrase, a series of nightmares from which we cannot awaken. Dreams are projected by the powers that be, and serve the interests of the powerful. Different cultures have different dreams, none more in touch with the true world than any other. What is good or true or sane in one dream is bad or false or crazy in another. To see this is to be awokened. To think otherwise is to engage in “dream supremacy.”

But she is prey to an even subtler delusion than the modern dreamer: she is convinced both that everyone is equally asleep, and that she is more awake than the others. The others are burdened by “false consciousness,” for which the remedy is “consciousness raising.” But if there is no Archimedean point to push against, no “base reality” to which we can collectively point, then there is no way to ascend, or know that you’re ascending. You can’t escape the cave; you can only be a serial spelunker.

I recently came across an image from a Simpson’s show from 1996 that juxtaposes the Republican and Democratic conventions. The GOP’s displays banners saying “We want what’s worst for everyone” and “We’re just plan evil.” The Democrats’, meanwhile, proclaim “We hate life and ourselves” and “We can’t govern!” To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the postmodern dreamer—i.e., the political progressive—is better than her principles. She is writing practical checks that her theory can’t cash. She is more awake than the modern dreamer. And the modern dreamer is more awake than the traditional dreamer. Yet she takes the dreams both too seriously and not seriously enough. She wants to tolerate and treat them with compassion—respect their “lived experience”—but she doesn’t see what they illuminate. She appears as a demon in their dreams; they appear as dreamers within hers. She is so concerned with waking people up that she doesn’t know how to sleep. She is so hyper-aware of the shadows lurking about, striving so hard to awaken and stay awake, that she cannot navigate the dreamworld. The traditional and modern dreamers have little inkling they’re even asleep, so they’re better able to focus and get things done.

The wit of a George Orwell can be the pin of pain that pricks her awake: “All animals are equal, some more than others.” All are equally asleep, but some are more lucid than others. No consciousness is capable of being 100% false or 100% true. Otherwise it wouldn’t be consciousness. Yet to see this is to be just a little bit more enlightened.

The lucid dreamer—the Morpheus figure who can move in and out, up and down through the dream worlds—can see that the other dreams are this dream rightly seen. A delusion is just an illusion mistaken for reality. The lucid dreamer sees dreams for what they are—plays of light and shadow. But she can see how they are related, the bardos that bind them—dreams within dreams within dreams. She does not run about trying to shake others awake, for she sees what and how they see—and how they see her. “There is nothing that must be treated so gently as a delusion,” Kierkegaard writes, “especially if you want to dispel it.” The word guru means “dispeller of darkness,” and the dream guru works in the dark, and with darkness, by playing with it.

When the philosopher in Plato’s allegory returns to the cave, he does not tell people they are ignorant or crazy or bad. He begins where they are, using shadows to guide them beyond shadows. He can handle their projections because he has mastered his own. He “takes the attack” and “yields” to them. By not pushing his agenda, he gets them to question their own. Because he does not react to their projections, they are forced to grapple with them. He gives them no opponent so that they will fall on their face and stumble awake.

In the battles to come—over free speech, school curricula, abortion, gun control, police reform, election fraud, climate policy, and more—we must awaken to the play of light and shadow in and between the traditional, modern, and postmodern dreams. What we require to fight well in the immense culture wars of the spirit—and fight we must—is lucid dreaming—while awake.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”