Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Addendum

August 21, 2018

As I was replying (in my usual verbose way) to Nemo, I got to thinking about an event in popular culture that maybe helps make a point about civility and humor.

The event is the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner and Roast, and the Republican reaction to it.  In this, the host, Michelle Wolf, made a comment about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying she burns facts and uses the ashes to make the eye shadow for her “smokey eye” look.  “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies,” Wolf said, in a parody of the classic “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” slogan.

The first thing I would say is that settings matter.  It was a roast.  That means that people are expected to use humor to mock others who are “big enough to take it.”  Traditionally, groups like The Friars Club used it as a form of honor between comedians.  Comedians are not eulogists; they are expected to mock others.  Wolf mocked her hosts, the assembled press, as well as political leaders.  That’s her job and her social function.  Anyone so thin-skinned that they can’t take this yearly ritual should get out of public life.  It’s like going to church and announcing publicly that you’re a worthless sinner in need of forgiveness; if you’re too self-centered to accept the idea that maybe you’re not perfect already, you shouldn’t go to church.  In Roman times, whenever a person achieved real greatness, he would be honored with a parade, called a “triumph,” with marching troops, musicians and all sorts of grandeur; but riding in the chariot beside him was a slave who would whisper repeatedly, “Remember you are mortal.”  THAT’S what a comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to do:  remind those in the press, in government and others, all who would walk with the gods and receive admiration and authority above all others, that they are mere mortals.

Second, the point of the attack was to accuse Sanders of routinely and casually lying.  Since her job is to speak for the President of the United States, it is deeply self-contradictory that she often makes statements that are provably false.  Her ostensible job is to keep people informed; in fact, she misinforms.  The joke was that she was “burning truths,” not that she wears too much make-up; the “smokey eye” reference turned her signature style into a metaphor for her misdeeds, a true incarnation for her sin against truth.

Third, Republicans immediately denounced what they said was an attack on Sanders’ looks.  Given that their leader routinely goes on Twitter to attack “Sloppy Steve” or “Little Marco,” the outrage seems even less than hollow.  More importantly, it misses the point, either deliberately or stupidly.  Some undoubtedly want to deflect attention away from the fact that Sanders’ relationship to the truth is like a Trump marriage:  fleeting, unfaithful and mostly centered around money.  But others may have been genuinely offended at making fun of Sarah’s looks, and thought that was mean-spirited.  To that I would say, again, it’s a roast.  You attack the ones you love, or at least the ones who are big enough to take it.  More to the point, that wasn’t the point.  People who were offended by the joke probably didn’t get the joke, so they’re attacking what they don’t understand by focussing on something tangential.

When Michelle Wolf said Sanders was a liar, she went after someone who is in a prominent social position and who has nothing to lose by such mockery.  When Rush Limbaugh, a prominent, powerful and rich person, attacked a private citizen and called her a “slut,” that was simple bullying.  It was also stupid and false, since his mockery revealed nothing deeper than the fact that he doesn’t know how contraception works or he’d have known that a woman has to take the pill every month regardless of how much sex she has, so a person in a committed relationship spends just as much money as one who isn’t.  It isn’t, like the condoms Limbaugh used in his trip to enjoy the prostitutes of the Dominican Republic, something that you spend more money on the more debauched you are—and I can only hope Rush did indeed use condoms in that well-publicized trip, since I’d hate to think of those poor sex workers catching STDs from him.  After all, many of them are children with their whole lives ahead of them.

See, that’s how it’s done.  You don’t beat up on people smaller than you, like Rush does and Trump does; you beat up on people who are big enough to take it, preferably whose egos are also puffed up even larger than their natural size.

“Civility” does matter.  What is “civility”?  Presumably, it is behaving in a civilized manner, as a member of a civilization.  And a civilization means there is some sort of a hierarchy, with division of labor, differing social functions and so on.  It’s one thing when a comedian makes jokes about the assembled guests at a roast; it’s another thing when a politician uses insults and deceits to dehumanize and belittle critics.  One is to entertain and, at times, to speak truth to power; the other is an aggressive self-defense, speaking power to truth to prevent legitimate critique.

And perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing socially destructive about a comedian telling jokes.  That’s what comedians do.  It doesn’t overturn the social order, at least not when it’s done in its own settings such as late-night television or a comedy club, or a roast.  But when the President of the United States abandons the dignity of that civilized office to become just another internet troll, it is as socially destructive as when Emperor Commodus took on the role of a slave to fight as a gladiator in the Arena of Rome.  It undermines the dignity of the office more thoroughly than anything any jester could possibly do.  Nietzsche said that anarchists are no threat to monarchs; if anything, the crown sits more securely on their heads due to the occasional bullet shot at them.  Likewise, authority is not threatened when a comedian lobs a couple jokes at elected leaders.  There was nothing “uncivil” about Michelle Wolf’s behavior; in a civilized society, a professional comedian telling jokes at a roast is not surprising.

From the authoritarian perspective, subordinates like us owe respect to our betters; authoritarian conservatives thus are more inclined to be offended at the disrespect of a person in authority than they are at the borderline sadism of a powerful, rich public figure tormenting and belittling a private citizen.  An authoritarian is more inclined to think that the strong person has a natural right to slap down others in order to defend the status quo.  That’s at least what psychologists like Steven Pinker have discovered:  conservatives tend to react much more negatively to jokes made at the expense of people they regard as authority figures.  It is said that conservatives have five “moral colors” with which they paint their moral landscape:  Harm, Fairness, Community, Authority and Purity.  These are instinctive moral values, coloring how an individual reacts to the social world.  They are facts of existence, and thus you cannot really say someone is “wrong” for thinking this way.  But the other fact is that liberals seem to only have three of those principles.  They agree with conservatives that it is wrong, generally, to harm others, that it is important to be fair, and that communal life and harmony are valuable; but they don’t care very much if at all about Authority or Purity.  Those values, the desire to maintain the status quo and to maintain firm boundaries between “insider” and “outsider” lest the outsider contaminate us insiders in some way, are inherent to the conservative mindset.  To liberals, the conservatives seem to be narrow-minded bigots; to conservatives, the liberal seem to be anarchists who threaten the very group (nation, family etc.) that sustains them.  But the fact is that some people see things one way and some the other; some get upset at challenging or mocking an authority figure and feel it is immoral, while others feel no discomfort so long at the mockery seems “fair” and does no real harm.  There is little sense in denying these facts.  However, it is reasonable to ask for consistency and perspective.  The people who are furious about Smokey-Eyegate are likely the same ones who laughed when Obama was President and elected Republican officials passed around e-mails with pictures of the White House garden planted with watermelons, or who agreed when an elected GOP officeholder said Michelle Obama looked like an ape in heels, because they didn’t regard the President they didn’t like as an “authority” and thus their automatic defenses against assaults on authority figures weren’t triggered.  Liberals, on the other hand, are psychologically less likely to divide the world into “outsider” and “insider” and thus were more outraged at the racism, and if anything more rather than less outraged that the racist humor was coming from elected authorities.  You can’t necessarily demand that others feel the way you feel about jokes about “your” President; but you can at least demand fairness, and say that if it was acceptable for them to laugh at your authorities then you get to do the same to theirs.  Thus, psychology tells us that what one person feels is “uncivil” may feel perfectly civil to another, and perhaps both are being honest in their judgments.  In that case, both have to also recognize that the other has a different take, and resist the temptation to see themselves as the only righteous ones.

To wrap up this already prolix essay:  Civility is, and is not in the eye of the beholder.  Often what one finds “offensive” will not offend another, sometimes simply because one respects the target of the “incivility” in one case but not the other.  But that is not what matters in the cultural debate over civility.  It matters a lot more whether the alleged incivility is a violation of social norms.  As Confucius would point out, the noble person should behave nobly, the authority figure should behave with dignity and humaneness, and the person with responsibility should behave responsibly.  This is the source of moral te.  Kierkegaard would add that the responsible person also deserves to be treated with the respect due to a responsible person—no more, but certainly no less.  If a politician holds a town hall meeting in our society, those attending have a right to speak out and air their grievances.  They don’t have a moral right to refuse to let the politician speak at all.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, there was a lot of incivility, and many people who objected refused to even listen to their representatives; they counted shouting him or her down as a victory.  It is no surprise that incivility has continued to spread.  And, having attended a Bush rally in the 1980s near my college, I can attest that liberals were equally disruptive and uncivil towards conservatives trying to speak their minds.  These are bad and disruptive to our political order; communication and understanding are essential in a democratic society, and you can’t have communication and understanding without basic civility.  But these are not as disruptive to our society as when authorities, who expect others to treat them with the dignity due to their office or their social status, will not themselves behave like civilized men and women, but instead turn from civilized humans into trolls.

As to Michelle Wolf:  a comedian doing her job is not disruptive to the political climate or social cohesion; if anything, she or he reinforces it.  Besides, it was a damned funny joke.

(more…)

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Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xvii)

July 6, 2013

            I don’t know that Kierkegaard really helps us understand role-playing games, except insofar as his distinction between “imagination’s way out” versus “religion’s way out” can help us remember that religious fantasy is still fantasy and not religion.  I saw an advertisement once for a visit to a local church by one of the authors of the Left Behind books.  This was said by the flyer to be “prophecy.”  Religious fiction is not prophecy; it is fiction, “religious poetry” in Kierkegaard’s terminology, presenting possibilities to the imagination but not truly inviting the individual to a personal relationship with God.  A religious role-playing game has the same limitations; and both “religious” and “non-religious” games can provide one of God’s secret agents the opportunity to work.  The “non-religious” one might have the advantage of providing cover, making the secrecy easier to maintain.  I think, though, that role-playing games throw more light on Kierkegaard than Kierkegaard throws on the games.  As Kierkegaard said, “boredom is the root of all evil;” and though he said this pseudonymously and ironically, it has truth.[1]  Boredom is the symptom showing that one’s life is meaningless.  The conditions that make a role-playing game boring are not entirely different than those that make real life boring:  pointlessness, lack of goals or values to make one’s striving be “for something,” a lack of coherence (or narrative structure), or a game/campaign that thwarts one’s individuality for the sake of some external agenda (either the group’s or the referee’s).  Likewise, the game is interesting when one has individual goals that are supported by also being part of group that affirms both individuality and participation; when one strives for goals that have a meaning beyond simply gaining levels; and when what happens in the game and in the character’s life has a coherence rather than being disjointed episodes unrelated to the past or future.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, v. 1, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 285

 

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xvi)

June 25, 2013

CONCLUSIONS

            For Campbell, mythology, psychology and metaphysics are all of one piece.[1]  Religion reveals the structure of the unconscious as this is collectively expressed, and this in turn expresses our understanding of the nature of reality; or to read it backwards, the structure of reality gives rise to psychological themes and symbols that are expressed, codified and institutionalized in religion.  Since virtually every role-playing game will express the monomyth, every such game will be an individual’s using those symbols drawn from the collective unconscious to understand himself or herself, to understand the cosmos, and to understand how the one fits into the other.  Perhaps that is one reason why these games can be so powerfully attractive.  Knowingly or not, players are manipulating the deepest symbols of the human condition, and of their own unconscious.

For Tolkien, any act of creativity is an expression of the imageo Dei.  That does not mean that every such expression is good or healthy; he says that much of human history has shown the perversions of this creative nature, whether in ancient human sacrifice or modern fascism and leader-worship.[2]  But when done properly, fairy-stories present a kind of gospel, a eucatastrophe, that reflects the deep human thirst for the true gospel; and perhaps they can whet the appetite for that true Consolation.  Most sorts of role-playing have the potential to express Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation to some degree.  One major difference is that a reader or hearer of fairy-stories must imaginatively enter into another’s Secondary World; in role-playing, everyone plays a part in creating the shared Secondary World together, so the experience is more immersive and active.

Many years ago, I read an article on the psychology of gaming, examining the question of whether or not role-playing games were dangerous (again, this was before the MMORPG, so the study was concerned primarily with Dungeons and Dragons).  In most cases, the conclusion was “no;” but the author did note that in a group home for boys with behavioral/psychological problems, gaming made them more resistant to therapy and particularly to group therapy.  I think that Tolkien and Campbell show us why this might be so.  In a sense, all fantasy is therapy, an expression of one’s deepest creative impulses, shared together and validated by the participation of others.  If one’s deepest nature is self-destructive, one will create a Secondary World that is hostile and destructive; or to put it another way, one will choose symbols and stories that thwart the hero and embrace chaos and destruction without rebirth.  Role-playing is a therapeutic technique, although therapeutic role-playing generally has little of what makes genuine role-playing games so popular and satisfying; and role-playing games can be a sort of self-medication or self-therapy.  Compared to the other sorts of self-medication that are common, RPGs would seem to be safer and more effective than most.  But having played various games for over thirty years, I can say that they can have some negative effects as well.  Their psychological and religious power can also lead players to compulsively play, to avoid reality rather than using the games as a tool to grow to face reality.

To be continued….


[1] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 256-59

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xv)

June 15, 2013

…The more fundamental problem is that in a very real sense, leveling is right:  we are all equal (before God) and therefore the prophet really is no better than the rest of us.  Where leveling gets it wrong is in reducing the individual to an abstraction or cipher, so that the only importance anyone has is as a member of a group (a voting bloc or demographic, say), with truth to be determined by which side gets the highest poll numbers.  Truth is the individual before God; to bring one to the religious is to help that one stand as an individual before God, not as a member of a party or even a fan of a prophet.  The only way to do that these days, Kierkegaard says, is to be “without authority,” an “unrecognizable.”[1]  It is not so much a question of doing a particular thing at a particular time, being one of God’s moral secret agents 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. M-F; rather, in whatever one does, as one interacts with other persons, the unrecognizable one is to look for opportunities to call others out individually to stand before God and through the power of God.  As he writes:

 

 

Then it will be said:  “Look, everything is ready; look, the cruelty of abstraction exposes the vanity of the finite in itself; look, the abyss of the infinite is opening up; look, the sharp scythe of leveling permits all, every single one, to leap over the blade—look, God is waiting!  Leap, then, into the embrace of God.”  But even the most trusted of the unrecognizable ones will not dare and will be unable to help anyone, even the woman who carried him under her heart or the girl for whom he would gladly give his life—they must make the leap by themselves, and God’s infinite love will not become a second-hand relationship for them.  Yet the unrecognizable ones (according to their respective ranks) will have a double task in comparison with the men of distinction (in the same ranks) in an earlier structure, for the unrecognizables are obliged to keep on working—-and at the same time to conceal their working.[2]

 

 

How is it possible?  Kierkegaard does not give concrete examples; since he is discussing what one individual can do in relation to another in actuality, he cannot really say ahead of time.  But it is what one is to do, and “ought” implies “can,” as Kant said, so it can be done.  And insofar as gaming is one of those activities that bring people together, it must be possible for the moral secret agent to use this opportunity to prompt another to leap over leveling’s blade into the arms of God.  If Kierkegaard could use an historical romance, with tales of sin and adultery and illegitimate birth, as an opportunity to invite others to flee envy and the herd mentality to become individuals before God, then it should be possible to do so with a game; and if there is in fact a game that is so soul-crushing that it cannot be so used, then perhaps the unrecognizable one should politely decline to join in.

To be continued….


[1] Two Ages, pp. 106-109

[2] Two Ages, pp. 108-109

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xiv)

June 9, 2013

It seems that in Campbell’s view, myths and fantasy work best when one doesn’t analyze them or have conscious awareness of what they are doing, since their power lies in the symbols of the collective unconscious.  For Tolkien it seems that while the storyteller may be intentional in crafting an evangelium it is just as possible that the storyteller and the audience are unaware, without changing the fact that it is a kind of gospel and an expression of the imageo Dei.  But it seems that for Kierkegaard, the individual needs to be aware of the workings of reflection, envy, and leveling in order to resist, and aware of the religious to choose it.  This would seem to be a major difference between them.  However, the story (or the game) can still offer “illusion” that the person may then choose to see as possibility.  It can offer a place of rest before one returns to the journey of life.  It can offer imagination’s way out.  But without choice, it cannot offer the religious.  At most, it can simulate another life, where one tries on the ethical or the religious persona for a time and perhaps gets a glimpse of life beyond the merely esthetic and egoistic standpoint, and beyond the conformity of the herd and a world which has banished heroes.

What if one is intentionally religious?  Can one choose to make one’s game playing a religious exercise, on Kierkegaardian terms?  The game as genre is inherently “poetic” in Kierkegaard’s terms:  imaginative, creative, dealing with possibility rather than actuality.  Deciding to play with overtly Christian characters  (say, in a St. George vs. the Dragon setting, where Catholic priests and pious knights slay agents of Satan) would make no difference; it might even make things worse, since it would reduce a gospel intended to be an existence-communication from a call to existence in actuality to a mere imaginative possibility.  Christian first-person shooters and Left Behind games might have horrified Kierkegaard, although he does write (through Johannes Climacus) that children should be allowed to play with holy things.[1]  What he definitely would have said, though, is that such things are not eo ipso “Christianity” merely because you fight demons or your avatar is dressed as a cleric.  Such things make Christianity ludicrous.[2]  It is only a little better when the work is done well, as in the Christian allegories of C. S. Lewis; having Aslan die to save a boy who ate the witch’s enchanted Turkish Delight both presents the mystery of salvation and trivializes it (the movie studio that optioned the Narnia stories didn’t care whether viewers became Christians or not, so long as they bought tickets).  From the perspective of Two Ages, Tolkien’s more subtle religious metaphor is far preferable to Lewis’ straightforward allegory, as Tolkien is better able to avoid the power of envy.  Kierkegaard argues that in the age of reflection, it will no longer do to have a prophet step forward and thunder, “Thus says the LORD!”  The obvious problem with this is that all attention will immediately be riveted not on the message, but on the speaker.  Instead of being the Word of God, he or she would become interesting, perhaps a celebrity even, to be gossiped about and speculated about, to be attacked and defended, and ultimately to be shown to be no better than the rest of us really (perhaps a tabloid would run pictures of the prophet at the beach in an unflattering swimsuit just to make that point).  In all this flurry of excitement, the one thing no one would think to do is actually heed the prophet’s words. ………

To be continued…..


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 601

[2] Fragments, p. 594

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xiii)

May 30, 2013

            What “way out” do role-playing games know?  In a sense, they know “actuality’s way out” even when they are most fantastic.  They may be unrealistic, but they must be internally consistent; and within that consistency the characters expect the assistance of actuality fully as much as do the heroines in A Story of Everyday Life.  Even in Call of Cthulhu, you need to give the players some chance to survive against the eldritch horrors they alone know lurk in the darkness, and chances for victory (however temporary and limited) against the evil plots of insane wizards and fanatical cultists.[1]  On the other hand, the theories of Jung and Campbell suggest that whether or not the myth is understood as actual history or poetic metaphor, it still functions by lifting the individual out of the concrete particularities and trafficking symbolically with great existential and metaphysical realities.  This would seem to be “imagination’s way out” by Kierkegaard’s standards.  Perhaps part of the power of role-playing games is that they uniquely combine elements of actuality and transcendence, by allowing players to act as particular concrete (albeit fictional) characters who still symbolically express and embody universal powers and eternal values.

 

            Kierkegaard says, however, that the escape of imagination or actuality will not suffice; only the religious can save from the power of leveling.[2]  The individual who wishes to escape leveling cannot hope to stand alone against the combined envy of everyone else, not to mention the power of his or her own reflection and the self-doubts it raises.  The individual must choose to stand as an individual against the power of leveling to force everyone back into the herd; but that choice alone is only the first step.  The next step is to stand before God as an individual, and to allow one’s relationship with God to affirm one as an individual.  The fact is that leveling is right, in a way.  Envy says, “Who do you think you are; do you think you are better than us?”  Religious humility says, “I am no better than any of them; we are all equal before God.”  But just as people in the age of revolution were individually oriented towards an idea, and united in being oriented towards the same idea, so in the age of reflection an individual can be oriented towards God and sustained as an individual; and all those who likewise orient themselves as individuals towards God are united with one another as individuals in equality.  Without some greater idea, selfhood collapses, and all becomes crudeness and the herd mentality.  Only those who have something more to live towards than their own selves can preserve their own selves in the crowd, by living as individuals with a great task; but reflection tears down every partial idea and incomplete goal, calls them into question, undermines them and the self-confidence of the individual who looks to them for sustenance, and ultimately reflection wins the day, leaving the essential equality of all individuals to collapse into the mutual envy of the members of the herd.  God is not a partial idea; God is the absolute telos, as Kierkegaard says in another book, the goal that can relativize and also complete all other goals.  For this reason, Kierkegaard thinks, the individual can turn to the religious to find the power to sustain the sense of individuality even in the age of reflection.  Only the religious provides the task that unites all tasks, the “idea for which I am willing to live and die.”[3] 

 

To be continued….


[1] From a Campbell/Jungian point of view, such games seem to symbolize the journey of Life and the struggle against Death, a struggle we know in the end we will all lose.  Horror role-playing seems to accept that dark reality, but seeks to find meaning in the struggle itself for as long as it lasts.  From Tolkien’s perspective, this seems similar to his understanding of the pagan world-view in general, and the Norse view in particular; see “The Monsters and the Critics,” p. 117.  The players, like the Norse warriors, are called to fight on the side of right, knowing all the time that Chaos and Unreason ultimately will triumph; for it is better to be right and defeated than dishonorable and victorious.

[2] Two Ages, pp. 85-90, 106-109

[3] as Kierkegaard put it in his journal on August 1, 1835

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xii)

May 23, 2013

            In this regard, Kierkegaard’s discussion of imagination and the novel seem relevant, since writing and gaming are both imaginative activities by most people’s definition.  He writes that, “The poet knows imagination’s way out; this author knows actuality’s way out; the religious person knows religion’s way out.  The life-view is the way out, and the story is the way.”[1]  What does that mean?  Kierkegaard seems to feel that this novel is closer to “actuality” than a typical poem, which simultaneously transfigures its content into some higher ideality while avoiding the actual concrete reality.[2]  A casual scholar can get a clue what he means by looking at the characters he himself created and which he describes as “poets:”  the Young Man in Repetition, Johannes de silentio in Fear and Trembling, A in Either/Or, for examples.  These are characters who quickly lose themselves in the “intoxication” of their poetic activity.  They do not deal directly with reality and life, but rather deal in abstractions and a mystical sense of union with the eternal; even de silentio discussing Abraham does not deal with Abraham but imaginatively reconstructs him, while admitting that he himself never finds the easy peace with actuality that Abraham does.  Kierkegaard’s models for the poetic are the Romantic and Hegelian poets who were popular in his time, such as Adam Oehlenschläger and  J. L. Heiberg, who always moved away from actuality towards grand spiritual vistas.  Kierkegaard writes that “Where poetry to all intents and purposes stops, this author (of the novel) begins.”  That is, a poet would have taken one of the troubled love affairs and set out to discuss the grand universal power of Love, so that the heroine found her consolation not in actually gaining her beloved but in losing herself in the eternal current of Love flowing through the cosmos.  The novel instead takes the heroine who has fallen under the power of Love and, rather than stopping with a celebration of that power for its own sake, begins instead to look for a way for her to actually find an actual resolution with her actual beloved.  Kierkegaard says this is higher, more advanced, moving in the direction of the religious rather than remaining merely within esthetic boundaries as poetry does.  In his pseudonymous writings, the characters described as “poets” are generally seeking to escape reality and some pain or hardship; for example, the Young Man in Repetition becomes a poet as a result of his own failed love affair and his inability to enter into a concrete relationship with an actual woman.  The religious response, as presented in Kierkegaard’s writings, would be to acknowledge the impossibility and yet to have the faith to remain engaged with actuality (see Abraham, or the merman in Fear and Trembling). 

To be continued…..


[1] Two Ages, p. 15

[2] Two Ages, pp. 14-15

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xi)

May 15, 2013

These then are the “two ages,” and this perhaps is one valuable function of role-playing games.  In the “real world,” the age of heroes has past; anyone who has truly great dreams can expect to be hooted off the world stage like an opera star trying to sing an aria at a burlesque show.  In a role-playing game, every player is a hero in his or her own story.  You may be Guildenstern or Third Servant to the other players, but you are Hamlet to yourself:   a welcome change perhaps from one’s real life.  And more importantly, in the game world there are still heroes, there are great deeds to do and great people to be.  The good games, the ones that grab and hold the players’ attentions, are the ones that make a player work, and then reward that work with achievement.  The idea that striving can make one better and one can make the world better is a notion that can inspire real accomplishment, if it carries over into the player’s nongaming life. 

 

            It is in this context that I understand Kierkegaard when he writes:

 

 

It does not take nearly as much effort to achieve something with the support of an illusion as it does when all illusions are lost.  And just as scurvy is cured by green vegetables, so a person worn out in reflection perhaps does not need strength as much as a little illusion.”[1]

 

 

 

The translators point out that this does not refer so much to deception or delusion as it does to possibility.[2]  While in the English translation this passage seems oddly out of place, the context does in fact support the Hongs’ reading and may even show how the two notions are connected.  Kierkegaard is comparing the present, reflective age with the age of revolution and passion.  In the story, the character Claudine goes astray, as he puts it, makes a mistake and makes a mess of her life based on her belief that she is acting for love and that is all that matters; but that same passion that led her to a wrong decision also sustains her, Kierkegaard says, and carries her through to the final triumph of her love.  By contrast, a reflective age may be more clear-sighted, may see a thousand possibilities and their consequences, and may understand that fools rush in where angels fear to tread; but that very clear-sightedness may paralyze one who seeks to make a decision.  We may tell ourselves that in an earlier age the alternatives were clear-cut and decisions were easy; and a singer put it:

 

 

Now there was a time when it was right and wrong.

 

It was black and white.

 

It was easier to get along.

 

Now it’s only just a dream.[3]

 

 

 

 

But Kierkegaard says that in fact, there never was a time when it was all “black and white.”  Instead, the passionate person makes a decision, choosing to act on the basis of that passion and the values it presents; the apathetic, reflective one chooses to see everything in shades of grey and cannot make a decision without first taking the energy to run through all the alternatives.  For this reason, it is much harder for the reflective, disillusioned person to make a decision.  A role-playing game, like a novel, can give one a chance to experience a world where passion and decisiveness and illusion still motivate and still give their rewards.

 

To be continued…..


[1] Two Ages pp. 66-67

[2] Two Ages, p. 170

[3] Bert Jansch, “Just a Dream,” When the Circus Comes to Town; BMG Music, 1995

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. x)

May 8, 2013

            Towards the end of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous phase, he wrote a book review in his own name:  Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review.  Being one of Kierkegaard’s signed works, it is a much more straightforward expression of his views.      This is a review of a novel; it is neither a fantasy nor a role-playing exercise, though it is fiction.  As fiction, it does share some qualities with the fairy-story. Kierkegaard says of the novel Two Ages that “The author has been faithful to himself.[1]  In this we see that the author has, as Tolkien would have put it, been consistent in creating her Secondary World for the reader to enter.[2]  Like Tolkien, Kierkegaard even compares the creativity of the writer to that of the Creator, although he does not go as far or become as explicitly theological in his comparison.  It is not quite religious, says Kierkegaard, but it tends in that direction; it knows “actuality’s way out” from the pain of life, rather than “religion’s way out.”[3]  And for this reason, it can offer “a place of rest” for the reader.[4]  This sounds very much like the role of Escape in the fairy-story, as described by Tolkien.  And the “way out” sounds more than a little like Consolation.  One difference is that while Tolkien is ready to describe the fairy-story as a kind of gospel, Kierkegaard takes pains to specify that no novel or work of “poetry” could be truly religious, since the realm of the religious is actuality and the poetic deals only in possibility.  But the novel simulates actuality and can thus offer insights into it.  I suggest that in the same way, a role-playing game can simulate life and in the process suggest truths about life (or, if the game is badly written, suggest lies).

 

            The “two ages” Kierkegaard discusses are the “age of revolution” and “the age of reflection,” or “the present age.”  The novel compares these two ages by presenting two love stories, both of which take place in Denmark (the country of publication).  The first takes place with the French Revolution as a backdrop.  A group of French travelers, including envoys of Napoleon, arrives at the house of a well-connected Danish merchant.  Their stay brings the passion and historical power of the Revolution to the home, stirring passion among the Danes as well.  This passion flows through everything from world-historical struggles and ideological debates to clandestine love affairs.  After love, separation, an illegitimate birth and reconciliation, young lovers are finally reunited and the first part of the novel ends.  The second part of the novel likewise revolves around a love affair, but it takes place in the reflective, petty age we live in now.  No charismatic foreigners come to Copenhagen to arouse the passions; there are no passions to be found.  Instead there is backbiting, gossip, envy and indecisiveness.  Instead of lovers who are driven by passion to do forbidden things, there are young people afraid to love because he doesn’t have enough money to support her.  Instead of the dangers and trials of a world at war, there are the snide comments of servants ridiculing the young stepdaughter of the family.  As Kierkegaard puts it, “If we say of a revolutionary age that it goes astray, then we must say of the present age that it is going badly.”[5]  As his own first pseudonymous work put it, in the Old Testament people have passion:  they murder, they curse their descendents, they sin; today they lack the energy, and at most try to weasel their ways through life with a little self-indulgence here and there.  This is what he sees illustrated in the novel.  The characters are driven by petty concerns to indulge in petty behaviors.  Instead of being united by some great passion and forced to decisively choose whether to be for or against (but all concerned for the same thing, the Revolution), today all are only interested in one another, in who is getting too full of himself or herself, who needs to be brought down a peg.  The only social force uniting people is envy, and the only result is not revolution but leveling.[6]  In the novel, Kierkegaard sees this illustrated in the petty meanness to which the heroine Marianne is subjected, merely because she is a stepdaughter (and hence vulnerable) and because she dares to love and to hope.  Kierkegaard sees this same dynamic playing out in society as a whole, becoming a social force on its own.   In the age of revolution, people looked for a great person, a Napoleon or a Luther, who would incarnate the great ideas and towards whom they could orient themselves either by joining or opposing; but today “the age of heroes is past.”[7]  Now, they only seek out the great ones to watch them, hoping to see them fall so they can all mock them for thinking themselves superior to the rest of us, or so they can tell themselves that the deed really wasn’t so great, anyone could have done it really, so again envy is satisfied:  “whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes, it levels.”[8]  Whole social institutions (most notably the modern press) exist solely to tear down what is great and noble and exceptional, without anybody having to take responsibility for doing so. 

 

To be continued….


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review; translated with an introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 13, italics Kierkegaard’s. 

[2] Kierkegaard knew full well that the anonymous author was a woman, but respecting her anonymity he consistently refers to the author as “he.”

[3] Two Ages, pp. 14-15

[4] Two Ages, p. 21

[5] Two Ages, p. 69

[6] Two Ages, pp. 68-96

[7] Two Ages, pp. 87-89

[8] Two Ages, p. 84

 

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. ix)

May 1, 2013

A KIERKEGAARDIAN DIGRESSION

            As so often happens to me, I find I can’t help bumping up against Kierkegaard as I write this essay.  In this case, it is the question of what makes a life meaningful.  In Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works, this problem appears in Either/Or, which is a debate between an egoist (or “esthete” in Kierkegaard’s terminology) versus a moralist (or “ethicist”).  The first volume of Either/Or is presented as the collected writings of an esthete, a person who lives for his own amusement and the pleasure of life.  He seeks to avoid entanglements of any kind, whether they be romantic, career or moral.  He treats everything as trivial except as it suits himself at the moment, in order to be free to pursue pleasure wherever and whenever it might appear.  As the book unfolds, the reader sees the result of this life, and its ultimate self-refutation.  The esthete says, “Boredom is the root of all evil,” but cannot escape boredom.  Instead, his (or her) entire life disintegrates into a series of ultimately disconnected and meaningless episodes, each increasingly resembling what went before.  In pursuing spontaneity and novelty above all else, the esthete ultimately falls into a life where true spontaneity and true newness disappear.

The second volume of Either/Or is presented as a series of letters from a judge, addressed to the young man who wrote the first volume, urging him to adopt an ethical life.  The judge argues that the boredom which plagues the esthete is itself a symptom of a deeper psychological malaise, which he labels “despair.”  To the judge, despair is the recognition that one’s life is meaningless.  All merely esthetic lives are meaningless, so despair is the universal condition of the esthete.  Instead, the judge argues that an ethical life actually preserves the beauty and joy of life better than the esthetic alone is able to.  The ethical life is the life lived for the sake of higher, “eternal” values, such as good over evil.  It is the attempt, the judge says, to take up the universal moral duties and make them actual in one’s own life.  This gives one’s life a continuous structure, by making one’s life a task to be consciously reflected on, willed and carried through instead of simply a drifting from one pleasure to another.  It puts one in relation with others, and in doing so puts one in relation to the past and the future.

Insofar as role-playing games are simulations of life (that is what “role-playing” suggests), the challenge for the players is to create characters that are fun.  This is an esthetic criterion, of course, and a subjective one.  However, in the long run, a character whose life consists of meaningless events, just fighting and getting stuff over and over, is more likely to get tedious than a character who has long-term goals that are important in the context of the game.  Killing 3,872 orcs is fine, but killing 3,872 orcs in order to save the village or clear the valley for one’s castle, from which one will establish one’s kingdom and change the world is much more satisfying, even if in fact all of this is just a game.  For this reason, most role-playing games have opportunities for just such a narrative structure, with a past history, present challenges and the hope that by striving the players can make a better future for themselves and for others.  While playing the game may be an esthetic occupation, it has more esthetic value when the fictional characters have ethical goals.

Another aspect that perhaps makes Kierkegaard particularly applicable to understanding role-playing games is the fact that Kierkegaard wrote most of his philosophical works while himself role-playing.  In writing Either/Or, for example, he did not merely describe the esthetic and the ethical lives; rather, he took on the role of an esthete and wrote as such a character would write, then took on the role of an ethicist and wrote accordingly.  To varying degrees, Kierkegaard’s most famous philosophical works are all written in character.  These characters are not mere pseudonyms; for the most part, they are different from their author, and some have fairly significant backstories and other personal details which are as important as their written arguments.

To be continued…..