The Paradox of the Sybarite and the Catatonic

Posted: August 15, 2006 in Culture, Philosophy

The embrace of all manner of stimulation is a symptom of our time. The idea of “getting the most out of life” or the expectation that we should (or even can) have an ongoing series of peak experiences manifests in our culture in myriad ways, each pointing to a desire or expectation of revved-up sensation. Returning to the office every Monday, we’re almost ashamed if we haven’t capitalized upon the promise of the weekend with a story of some sort of excess.

A sybarite is one who fetishizes food and luxuriant comforts, which in a wider sense is an almost hedonistic abandonment to the experience of one’s senses. The catatonic, on the other hand, is someone for whom modern life is an excessive barrage of stimulation, a deluge, more stimulation, in fact, than can be absorbed and dealt with. This difficulty leads to a hollowing out of the qualitative aspects of experience, a sort of unfeeling, automatic, patterned response to outer reality that strips away information and affect to the point that the individual’s inner reality collapses and he becomes his functions, as opposed to a thinking, feeling participant in the world. In a bustling metropolis, the mere act of walking down the sidewalk requires excluding from attention various things pressing upon us except for footfalls, jostling amongst people (traffic), and the eventual destination. We become the function of travel and experience very little of it in any meaningful sense.

The paradox of the sybarite and the catatonic is that both are examples of people who can’t feel, though they come to it from different directions. The former can’t feel anymore, having lost all sensitivity, and needs things to be amplified just to register; whereas the latter can’t feel anymore because the experience is too intense or confusing. Both become, in effect, unthinking, and in affect, unfeeling. One might object that this isn’t true of everyone, which is true. However, even a passing examination of the culture reveals that we’re a nation of excess. We’re encouraged at every step to maximize or minimize; rarely are we encouraged to optimize. We all tend toward the extremes, and the ultimate effect, always visited upon the more adaptable young than the more fully formed adult, is the zombie or automaton.

The most obvious example is the drug culture, which many adults have successfully avoided but is now almost a rite of passage among today’s youth. I’ve actually seen posters in high schools where 25% of students (based on local data) were praised for not being drug users (including marijuana). I am by no means the only or even first person to notice these effects. Consider the following from Alan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind:

Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors — victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits … [S]tudents who have had a serious fling with drugs — and gotten over it — find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectations … They may function perfectly well, but dryly, routinely. Their energy has been sapped, and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living … [R]ock addiction … has an effect similar to that of drugs. The students will get over this music, or at least the exclusive passion for it … in the same way Freud says that men accept the reality principle … [They] will study economics or the professions and … will want to get ahead and live comfortably. But this life is as empty and false as the one they left behind … [A]s long as they have the Walkman on [now iPod], they cannot hear what the great [liberal arts] tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.

  1. grasshopper says:

    So what should we do? Socrates considered poets a corrupting influence. Is Bloom proposing that rock musicians are our modern poets? What do most people define as “rock music,” anyway?
    Doom may be inevitable but if we’re participating in a shared world, we still have our moments, those searing flashes of who we are and what we hope to become.

  2. Brutus says:

    It’s what we will become that interests me most. I haven’t yet blogged on the topic of consciousness. This post is a tiny step in that direction. My assessment is that we’re heading for a new Dark Age, where our minds are shuttered and only half awake. The inability to feel described in this post is a symptom of that trajectory. But it’s a big topic and will take many posts to describe. It’s been a preoccupation of mine throughout my adulthood, so it’s not an idle idea but one well researched and considered.

    As to Bloom, I suppose he might regard rock musicians as modern poets, considering they’ve captured probably the largest audience in modern times. But he also thinks them a caustic influence (a la Socrates), as evidenced by the quote above.

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