Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Liberal guilt

A pervasive theme in Elementory -- the association of moral uncertainty with ontological uncertainty. It's a peculiar re-emergence at a time when the draining away of traditional religious "faith" has left people more exposed than ever, and when science only seems to spiral down into ever more incomprehensible and alien, even artificial, non-human "realities". The old religions, of course, had guilt aplenty to dispense, starting with Original Sin -- a concept insulting to the modern notion of the individual, but useful to a traditional social matrix as a way of asserting a kind of universal equality in compensation for hierarchy. But that was a taught guilt -- liberal guilt, on the other hand, is a free-floating, self-generating phenomenon, kind of like what happens to a flywheel when its load is removed. (But also consider Trillings' comment re: Freud, that his resort to a "death instinct" stemmed from a desire to find a source of moral gravity again, in the absence of religion; both metaphors, however -- flywheel and gravity -- may operate here.)

Let's say that such guilt constitutes a theme of Elementory, where it's especially pertinent to the first half -- in fact it becomes a lever in the hands of the main antagonist. To quote from some earlier notes:
And now consider how such a theme might relate to the larger theme of contrasting appearance-as-screen with appearance-as-foundation. The issue is complex, but free-floating, as opposed to specific, guilt acts as a source of moral gravity for those perpetually troubled by the sense of an abyss over which they hover -- i.e., specifically for those lacking a sense of a foundation or bedrock on which to stand.
This is the explanation for that bien pensant "concern" that so often manifests itself in these circles. In the second half, then, would be nice to contrast real or substantive guilt.


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