Choosing Abundance

John P. Sisk

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 66 (October 1996): 22-26.

The late avant-garde composer John Cage once urged as a basic principle that we "choose abundance rather than scarcity. Be wasteful, rather than pinchpenny. Get as much as you can out of all there is to be had. Have it even if you don't use it, or even if you use it badly as a gadget." Strange words indeed, now that the closing of our millennium has concentrated our attention on the deterioration of the environment and overcrowding in conditions of an increasing scarcity of vital materials. Nagged at by WorldWatch, we are more likely to heed the words of Carl Sagan: given our sorry world, we may ultimately face the choice of going the way of the dinosaurs or moving elsewhere in the cosmos to start over.

It helps to remember that Cage made these remarks in the spring of 1969, in the heyday of the Aquarian counterculture of the sixties when it was widely believed that an abundant life demanded hostility to the pinchpenny establishment and that there would always be experts like Buckminster Fuller to show us how to do more with less, so that everybody on Spaceship Earth could have more of everything. People going with the flow in those days were no more inclined to see a threat for humans in the fate of the dinosaur than to worry about the population explosion. In fact, Fuller believed that "Everyone in the world could be on Long Island and it would be less crowded than a cocktail party." He was no more likely than Cage to build his life around Benjamin Franklin's pinchpenny advice that "Spare and have is better than spend and crave."

Those who were college professors in those countercultural times might remember that their students, had they been polled, were much more likely to have chosen Cage's abundance than Franklin's pinchpenny. But those half million young people gathered at Woodstock in the summer of 1969 were in no mood for the distracting eccentricities and baffling silences of Cage's kind of music. One of his most famous compositions, for instance, required the audience to endure four minutes and thirty- three seconds of silence from the performers. Such a stillness at Woodstock would have suggested not a rarer kind of abundance but a niggardly incapacity to apprehend the releasing spirit of the occasion.

Americans, of course, have always been conspicuous choosers and disposers of abundance, and by the same token, as Thorstein Veblen famously complained nearly a century ago, conspicuous and wasteful consumers. But they have been no less conspicuous in their complaint that the experience of abundance, like the experience of art and advertising, has a frustrating tendency to fall short of its promise. You can spend your spare time with Shakespeare and Beethoven, live in a Trump-type Tower, have as many shirts as Jay Gatsby, ride about in a chauffeured limousine, dine with movie stars, and still feel that something you are entitled to is being withheld. In the midst of plenty you can be tauntingly reminded, as Andrew Carnegie once was, of "how sweet and happy and pure the home of honest poverty is."

But no less noteworthy is the resilience of the American spirit as it rebounds from the repeated experience of having been misled by the promise of abundance. For the ever wistful rebounders there is now, for instance, the Church of Scientology, with its promise of the enduring enrichment of the self by way of the dominance of the analytic mind over the reactive mind. The goddess Sophia is enrichingly available to women as a counterforce to the patriarchal and pinchpenny God. For both sexes there is Terence McKenna's promise of an "Archaic Revival" in which human consciousness and the world will be psychedelically transformed by way of the magic mushrooms McKenna discovered in the rain forests of the Amazon. His True Hallucinations might even lead one to suspect that McKenna could find a place in his psychedelic utopia for a hedonist like Shakespeare's Falstaff, provided the latter could tolerate the substitution of mushrooms for his beloved sack wine.

For McKenna the coming psychedelic millennium must be distinguished from the capitalist culture whose idea of abundance, as he sees it, is not a breakthrough to a higher consciousness but the easy and quick accumulation of material goods. In fact, he is in the counterculture tradition with those Americans who between the two world wars, their higher consciousness having been inspired not by golden mushrooms but by Karl Marx as filtered through the minds of Lenin and Stalin, wanted as quickly as possible a lasting abundance for everyone.

Indeed, choosers of abundance in America have usually assumed, however naively, that the natural consequence of wealth will be a refined consciousness and an appreciation of the finer things of life. This is the way it was with the Alger hero, who went from rags to riches not because he ate golden mushrooms but because he had character. And certainly we do an injustice to Cage if we assume that for him the only and best abundance is material well-being. We have to give him credit for knowing that in a society in which everyone put money first, his kind of music would be ruled out as a peace-disturbing and profitless racket that no one could dance to.

This is not to say, however, that Cage and his appreciators are on the side of character. They are too committed to the flexible and protean, too dependent on the possibilities of random discovery. The society that values the man of character has a pinchpenny attachment to the past and refuses to let Beethoven and Brahms go so that Cage's musical counterculture with all its promise of a higher consciousness can happen.The notion that such "higher consciousness" might never arrive- that Cage's musical experiments were merely more of the rubble from the collapsed edifice of character-seems never to have occurred to his supporters.

As Josiah Fisk presents him in the Autumn 1994 Hudson Review, Cage was an influential figure in "the new simplicity" in music, a movement that tends to leave us "blissfully ignorant of the dialogues, the ambiguities, the deeply questioning and even subversive powers that actually govern the operation of music." But Cage's kind of simplification is what Jose Ortega y Gasset was writing about between the world wars in Man and Crisis at a time when Europe as well as America was experiencing the events that turned out be prologue to the coming counterculture of the sixties. What struck Ortega as he compared the Renaissance of the fifteenth century to our own time was "simplification in the face of desperation, in the face of feeling lost in an excessive richness of life." In this situation, threatened by the disorienting complications of abundance, we can be pushed automatically "into dreaming of the life of the past, archaic, early, and primitive" or into some passionate and clarifying reduction of the bewildering complexity of life. The result, as Ortega put it, is that extremism becomes a form of life.

Of course, the extremism that reacts against unmanageable abundance ends up increasing the abundance of available orientations out of which further choices must be made. If those choices are themselves extreme, the choosers have the support of society's conviction that extreme situations demand extreme solutions. Besides, in a world of scarcity, extremism makes a nice alternative to the boredom that a lack of abundance imposes. The persistence of the myth of an irresistible and salvational avant-garde impulse depends, in fact, on the belief that where boredom reigns there can be no abundance to choose, and bourgeois values will stifle all creative effort, whether in art or politics.

Extremists, as is everywhere apparent these days, easily qualify as visionaries. Appropriately enough, in 1995, the Utne Reader featured one hundred visionaries "Who Could Change Your Life." Here again we get Ortega's image of extremist abundance in the face of bewildering complexity: this in spite of the fact that a minority (Vaclav Havel, Richard John Neuhaus, and Pico Iyer, for instance) are on Ortega's side and would no more expect a healthy cultural diet from such a smorgasbord of visionaries than they would expect to find temperance pamphlets being handed out at a rock concert.

Ortega's extremist commits himself to a feverish affirmation of his corner of reality and denies himself the rest. The problem, of course, is that any solution the disoriented and despairing choose in times of crisis will be to some extent an extremist simplification relative to the bewildering abundance of life in which they must find their reorientation. Thus St. Paul in Ortega's perspective is no less an extremist than a licentious wonder-working visionary like Simon Magus (he claimed he could fly), who may have been stimulated by St. Paul to become more extreme than he had been. So Christianity, as if to counter the objection that it is only one feverishly guarded corner of reality among many, has always managed to expand and clarify its being in the world through the act of contending with the simplifying extremisms of the heresies it inspires. Understandably, the frequent recurrence of such unexpected consequences in the secular world as well encourages the pathological fear of all extremisms (not including its own) that marks postmodern skepticism and helps to make what Robert J. Lifton called "Protean Man" look like an indispensable culture hero.

Lifton is on the Utne list, but Cage and Buckminster Fuller, being dead, are not, however they may be there in spirit. Absent too is that countercultural guru, Timothy Leary, who announced before his recent death that his head would be removed from his corpse and frozen in liquid nitrogen so that it might later be defrosted and attached to a cloned or mechanically produced body. More interestingly absent in the flesh but present in spirit is the French-Romanian visionary E. M. Cioran, whom some have called a Gnostic philosopher (though he confesses-see the interview with him in the Summer 1994 Samagundi-to have lost faith in philosophy).

For Cioran, Gnosticism must rank among the most extreme of extremisms, grounded as it is on the dogma that in the beginning "something unspeakable must have happened." What happened was that the evil Demiurge, whose antithesis is the impotent Good God and whose delegate is the Devil, took over the world, leaving us strangers within it and alienated from that true abundance of being that would otherwise have been our birthright. Since the world of material reality, time, and history is the domain of the Demiurge and his Arcons, to choose abundance in the expectation of a final escape from privation is simply to reinforce our bondage to the Demiurge.

The attempt to escape boredom, especially in our materially abundant and technologically bedazzling culture, has the same effect. Boredom, Cioran says, is connected naturally with the experience and consciousness of time. But in the Gnostic view the extremist reactions from the disorienting complexities of our condition are only the means the Demiurge employs to enlarge his domain in which the entertainments of abundance beguilingly promise a triumph over matter and time.

The Cages and the Falstaffs of the world are least likely to know this, but true-believing Gnostics, an avant-garde elite if there ever was one, have always known it and have always known too how to move into and stake out claims in Christian and Jewish territory. (Harold Bloom in The American Religion has argued that Gnosticism is entrenched in American Protestantism as well as in Emersonian transcendentalism.) The true Gnostic, knowing the wiles of the Demiurge, is not about to be taken in by the pseudo-Gnostic promise of a new consciousness by way of McKenna's golden mushrooms. How like the subtle Demiurge to have planted them in the Amazonian rain forest, knowing that when in due time they were found they might, thanks to the naivete of the eaters, contribute to the prevailing complexity and confusion in the world, and thus insure the continuing force of that initial unspeakable happening.

The Demiurge apparently is a sadist whose greatest pleasure is to torment humans with images of unrealizable earthly abundance. It is also his perverse pleasure to encourage the aesthetic impulse thanks to which humans are able to tantalize themselves with delusive images of their own creation. True Gnostics with their avant-garde knowledge know all this just as they know all about those avid and gullible others to whom the Demiurge's aesthetic images guarantee abundance without end if they are bold and clever enough to seize it.

Here one may wonder about Cioran himself. Is he, as he sometimes seems to be, a true-believing Gnostic or is he only one of those who see no alternative to Gnosticism's ontology and cosmology but waver at its theology? In the Salmagundi interview he confesses to having known early on "that I did not have faith and I also knew that I would never have it." Religious faith seems such a distorter of experience, such an encourager of illusion, that polytheistic paganism's admission of many divine stories seems better than monotheistic Christianity's insistence on a single story. Faith, he says in The New Gods, is a Christian invention, hence its aggressive and frantic nature. The old religion was more human, more tolerant of shifts from one god to another, and less likely to breed fiercely embattled heresies. Yet there is something like faith in his fascination with the Gnostic picture of things as they are, always have been, and always will be. His belief that "we live in a period of absurd and completely unnecessary overproduction" suggests the Gnostic's categorical abhorrence of material reality-especially when we remember that in his earlier The Fall Into Time civilization itself was judged to be the work of the Devil.

But at the same time, he says, "To live without music would be a torment to me, an absurdity," which a true-believing Gnostic could take as a sign that the Demiurge still has him in thrall. Schumann and Bach make the music he likes; Bach, in fact, is a god to him. It is just as safe to say that he would no more enjoy Cage's chance-determined and silence- fractured harmonies than he would trust any abundance that Cage might choose for him.

By the same token, we can no more imagine Cioran eating McKenna's magic mushrooms than sharing the latter's enthusiasm for the "ambient music" of the international youth culture-which might only drive him to one of his meditations on suicide that he has found to be "almost as liberating as the act itself." Perhaps we must locate him somewhere among those waverers who have found a viable position between agnosticism and downright disbelief from which no visionary is likely to move them.

If a quarter of a century ago Cage had been able to foresee the cultural impact of the computer he might have seen it as further reason to hope that abundance when boldly chosen could be manageable, and certainly no reason to expect that Ortega's extremism with its disorienting complications would continue apace. On the other hand, a true-believing Gnostic, oriented to a transcendental state of being, would have to see the computer as the means the Demiurge uses to imprison humans more securely in the world of time and matter in which the rigged environment frustrates any attempt at transcendental relief. Indeed, one might imagine the Demiurge's definition of hell as a place where the inmates are condemned to playing the same Nintendo game forever, knowing before each play that they are doomed to suffer once more the reversal of the expectation that they might win.

I suspect that Ortega would have realized that in a world marked by the proliferation of extremist simplifications, something like the computer was inevitable. How else to keep from being swamped by information generated as the simplifications compete or attempt to accommodate themselves to one another? Perhaps too he would have foreseen that such an instrument would often enough have the effect of one more simplification and so aggravate the condition it was expected to alleviate. Would not the record of society's past experience with advances in the transmission of information have led him to expect that the faster a mere mortal travels the abundantly informed infobahn, the sooner he will arrive at the crossroads, detours, and turnoffs that invalidate the map that led him to them, and so be tempted to an enervating postmodern skepticism about the reliability of any map? Might Ortega not have foreseen too that such a New Age as ours would be especially vulnerable to the Gnostics' simplifying temptation to assign the mess of the world to the Demiurge and so end up tormented with a babble of visionary voices?

Not all the Utne visionaries are so pessimistic. Starbuck, the goddess-infused San Francisco Reclaimer, believes that "We have the technology to live in harmony with the earth, and I'm glad we do. I don't want to give up my computer." As for McKenna, his mushroom- generated Archaic Revival might seem to need computers the way Newcastle needs coal. Nevertheless, he states that "For me a balanced intellectual life is a life of immersion in high technology pursued in a nurturing and remote natural environment." A confirmed Gnostic would recognize in these words that the Demiurge, having seduced McKenna into a categorical choice for abundance, still had the situation well in hand.

But as Hans Jonas reminds us in his classic The Gnostic Religion, the true-believing Gnostic also had choices. He could categorically choose the way of antinomian libertinism (as did the Valentinians), in which case the pneumatic self acted as if it had "a positive injunction to perform every kind of action, with the idea of rendering to nature its own and thereby exhausting its powers." So the Valentinians chose an abundance of sin, all injunctions against sinning being the means the Demiurge uses to enslave them in the time-bound material world. To sin vigorously, then, could be a way to cancel their estrangement from the Good God.

Anarchic libertinism was thus the extremist opposite to that other and no less extremist way of despising the world that Gnostic asceticism was. This ascetic way quite logically took a dim view of sex and marriage, which could only increase the population of the Demiurge's domain. Paradoxically, like today's compulsive dieters and exercise buffs, the ascetics chose the scarcity of self-denial in the interest of an eventual abundance of being. In making their choice they had as much reason as the libertines did to believe they were acting on the sanction of an infallible avant-garde. Cioran seems to be on their side with his belief that "there is no freedom, no 'real life' without an apprenticeship in dispossession." Here, of course, he might seem to be endorsing the true-believing Christian's association of the "real life" of Easter with the dispossessing apprenticeship of Lent. But the crucial difference is that for Cioran what is dispossessed is not worth possessing in any context: his Lent is apparently without end. He would surely find nothing to admire in Carnegie's sweet home of honest poverty.

The libertine and ascetic Gnostics strike us as being incompatible heretics, however in the act of day-by-day living each may have slipped into the other's territory. They lacked the American ingenuity to combine the two impulses that we can see in New York's Eulenspiegel Society and in similar modishly appointed temples of the sadomasochistic erotic underground. In such places, thanks to professional guides and an abundance of paddles, blindfolds, whips, handcuffs, hot candle wax, restraining chains, and devices for electric shock, it is possible for the clientele to explore unsuspected dimensions of their humanity while positive life forces surge through them, pain meanwhile being carried strategically to the point where it ceases to be pleasure. One could see such highly organized assaults on boredom as parodies of the practices of cenobites in desert caves where, however, the rebellious ego and flesh were mortified, not pampered. True-believing ascetic Gnostics might see in such fraudulent sideshows the presence of faithless Valentinians in the act of providing more entertainment for the Demiurge.

It is not hard to see the result, in America and Western civilization generally, as the embattled simplicities of a life-affirming libertinism and a life-denying asceticism complicate all attempts to answer the question whether it is safer to choose abundance than scarcity. Indeed, one of the major attractions of utopia is its guarantee that the question will never come up. Understandably, many of our most compelling stories feature the painful fate of individuals so caught between the countering claims of these imperatives that, unlike the utopian Falstaff, they are incapable of an unambiguous choice. The ambiguity of their position is the one we find memorialized in St. Augustine's famous prayer: "Give me chastity and continence, but not just now."

In time, as we know, Augustine became an unambiguous and unwavering Christian. Unwavering Christians are able to see their presence in the material, time-bound, but always spirit-haunted world as a testing assignment. They are in a position to see that there are times when to choose pinchpenny is to choose a state of dispossession in which the uncluttered mind and liberated soul have access to a true abundance, but without forgetting their dependence as human choosers on whatever abundance they are blessed with. And perhaps too, being more open to the mysteries of quotidian reality, they may be willing to concede the possibility that during Cage's four minutes and thirty-three seconds of enforced silence, some of those in his audience might themselves come to this conclusion.

John P. Sisk is Professor of English Emeritus at Gonzaga University and author of Being Elsewhere.