When Irony Saves the Faithful
The Protopian Mind Must Function From A Radical Stance of Sincere Irony
“I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.” — Arthur C. Clarke
My recent articles have centered around the concept of “Protopia” — the more flexible, dynamic, and abstract version of an imagined “Utopia”. If utopian dreams were too rigid and dangerous, Protopia at least provides us with shared hope, motivation, and a sense of direction.
How, then, should “Protopians” conduct themselves? Their key virtue must be, I shall argue, a certain quality of “sincere irony”: it’s abstract and playful enough to allow for new visions and new faith in the worlds our hearts know are possible — but at the same time self-critical and detached enough not to get stuck in naïve and totalitarian projects.
Ladies and gents, fellow Protopians, I give you: Sincere Irony!
Protopians Must Live by Sincere Irony In Order To Cultivate the Necessary Mutual Trust
As an author, how do I build trust with the reader? It’s a valid question. Trust is hard to come by these days.
Mutual trust generally consists of four dimensions, I would argue:
- competence (or credibility, that you know the other person is capable of doing what you need them to do),
- goodwill (that you have reason to believe in the benevolent intentions of the other),
- reliability (that what is agreed upon or claimed will be lived up to, most of the time), and
- alignment (that our interests align and don’t contradict one another).
If all of these four are in place, a solid foundation of mutual trust can form, from which beneficial and creative collaborations can flourish. When people build trust in e.g. work relationships, they tend to forget about the last one. The secret is to reveal to others what you really want, and to ask the same of them. People will often gladly tell you. Find the people that want, not necessarily the exact same, but things that can be truly aligned with your goals. Then you know that they will genuinely wish for your success (in a deep and wide sense of the term), and they know that you genuinely wish for theirs.
You could arguably add a fifth dimension, which has to do with emotional report or resonance; that you feel seen and understood. This last aspect is important, but it often tends to be overemphasized in our time, as people are starved for authenticity and connection. It will likely fall into place if all the other four dimensions are there. What good, after all, is an emotional connection if you end up not being able to rely upon one another and if your goals collide?
So let’s build trust. It’s a tall order, but it’s how we truly prosper as the social beings that we are. People find many, warranted or unwarranted, reasons to mistrust one another. And yet, lives are only as rich as the prevalence of trust. We move together, as people like to say, “at the speed of trust”. When it comes to the relationship between an author and a reader, trust is also necessary for the author’s messages to be heard and sink in with the reader.
Strange as it may sound, my main method for this trust-building with the reader is irony. Slightly crazy people like myself, who say unusual things, invoke a natural level of suspicion in readers and listeners. It just comes with the territory. But by adopting an ironic stance, I am conveying to you that I’m not taking myself too seriously. There is room for critique, for questioning, for jokes, for open ends. That is the magic of irony, if done correctly and with the right kind of twinkle in the eye. If I went on like a frenzied agitator, you’d be right to suspect me of tunnel vision, fanaticism, or hubris. The very fact that I’m approaching the whole thing like more of a joke shows you that, in the greater scheme of things, at least I know when I am saying something somewhat outrageous, and I understand that, at the end of the day, the joke is on me. At least I know that while I do act as a comedian at times (this most Satanic of professions), I am also the butt of the joke. It shows you that I have at least some ability to take an outside perspective on how my message is perceived and taken in. Irony is, strangely enough, a token of my sanity. As it were, the use of irony grounds the dangerous electric wire of authenticity and hope, so that a stronger current can run through it. The sincerity of my message is carried forward through the channels of irony and (a lighthearted form of) sarcasm.
In the end, it’s how much authentic life experience and thinking I manage to convey, how well I connect to who you are as a sensing and emotional being, that determines the effect of the article itself. This article itself also consists of four dimensions:
- the ideas themselves,
- the writing down of, packaging, and formulation of those ideas,
- the angle through which the ideas are spread and marketed to the right readers, and
- the reception and use/application of the ideas by real people in real situations.
When push comes to shove, the only dimension that truly matters is the last one; the actual effect of the article in real people’s lives, even those who didn’t read it themselves, is what the article ultimately “is”. And that requires a certain quality of trust and something else, a quality pulsating through the pages and beyond.
What, then, is that power running through the wires at the speed of trust? Again, it is authenticity. It is sincerity. The mastery over irony allows, at least in our cultural context of so many peddlers of messages and ideas, for sincerity to blossom. One has to display one’s own weaknesses and limitations for people to know that what they’re getting is, after all, the real thing. I’m saving you the trouble of joking at my expense and revealing my weaknesses and intentions, because they’re already revealed and analyzed asunder for your enjoyment (but do feel free to add your own critiques and jokes!). And this requires a certain stance, a stance of ironic sincerity, or sincere irony, whichever formulation you prefer. The two qualities contain one another; they are conjoined in cosmic dance, a yin-and-yang, a Shiva-Shakti act of revolutionary lovemaking.
It’s a riskier and, I would argue, gutsier stance than being either ironic or directly sincere. It’s a carefully crafted both-and. It’s the jiu-jitsu path to sincere relatedness. If we’re ironic about our life projects, then we can also allow ourselves a few big dreams, a bit of French revolution in the air, even a bit of religious fervor, of piety and faith. And that’s something modern human beings have been lacking. Who would have thought that faith and piety would return through irony and its God of cruel jokes?
Did It Whose Way?
One can even argue that there’s a three-step process of personal growth and cultural expression: first, authenticity/sincerity, second, irony/nihilism, and third, sincere irony. This third one comes in many flavors that capture slightly different sides of it: informed naivety, magical realism, playful struggle, pragmatic romanticism, even conservative radicalism.
Let me illustrate this by way of Frank Sinatra’s song, My Way. You remember the song, don’t you? Sing it silently to yourself with the help of these lyrics. Yes, all five verses.
And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way
Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows
I took the blows
And did it my way
Yes, it was my way
When we read this we hear a clarion call to authenticity, to being true to ourselves. We hear Sinatra, singing in 1969, at the fairly ripe age of 53, a modern anthem of American (and Western) individualism, reflecting a long and rich life experience. Even a bit of wisdom, albeit the Wisdom of the West. Like you, I’ve also struggled to cut loose from societal expectations and inhibitions, and I too long to reflect back at my life, feeling, in truth, that I did it my way. I remember a good friend who would even listen to the song alone in the car during a period in her life where she was suffering from having chosen the wrong professional path for herself. Eventually, she did break free, went back to school, reeducated herself to be a medical doctor, and attained a fulfilling career somewhat late in life. And, in the end, I think she stopped listening to this old song, because she could truly say she did it her way. Here, you have a hymn to authenticity, to a sincere life: For what is a man, what has he got?/ If not himself, then he has naught / To say the things he truly feels / And not the words of one who kneels. Seriously, my eyes tear up when I hear that. The words do speak to me.
Beautiful. Now consider these little factoids. Who actually wrote this song? It was not Frank Sinatra. It was Paul Anka, another singer (“Oooh pleeaase, staaay by me, Diiiaa-naaa!”). And how old was he when he wrote this old man’s reflection back on a life well-lived? 26. And what kind of life is Paul Anka known for having lived? One of Beverly Hills decadence with Swedish (etc.) Hollywood housewives who openly admitted to being gold diggers. Hardly a pinnacle of wisdom and authentic connection. Most likely, in a stroke of marketing genius, Anka placed the song in the reverberating vocal chords of the person from which it would be best received. The melody of the song was bought from an obscure Frenchman by Paul Anka for one dollar, and Sinatra showed up to their meeting with a number of mafioso types. Sinatra then went on to use the same song for the next 25 years or so, always doing a new comeback with a new farewell tour. Sinatra’s daughter later revealed that he came to hate his signature song: “He didn’t like it. That song stuck and he couldn’t get it off his shoe. He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”
You’d have to look far for an ounce of artistic authenticity behind this song. Every penny was squeezed systematically out of this piece of poetry. That’s the song’s real bottom line. The anthem of modern Western authenticity is a result of a marketing stunt. “Once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything”, is a lyrics line from The Sound of Music. Well — once you know your marketing, you can sell most anything. There’s another, darker, snippet of the Wisdom of the West.
And now we’re getting into the second stage: irony, or even nihilism. Here’s the thing. Our senses only ever interact with surfaces. We so like to believe that we can feel into the deeper essences of the realities behind it all, but alas, experimental psychology lays its somber verdict: we respond to what reaches our senses — and nothing else. The rest we simply conjure up in our minds and emotional wiring. Automatic responses to stimuli. Endless facades, an inescapable prison of surfaces. The world is flat, and how we experience it can be endlessly manipulated because, ultimately, the mind itself is flat. And it is endlessly manipulated. If every situation is socially constructed, guess who rules the world? Whoever is the best wizard of Oz, whoever pulls the levers of social construction, whoever frames the situations within which events play out. The engineers of symbolic and situational machinery. Whoever knows their marketing. And what’s the ultimate treat for the social constructor? It’s to construct situations whereby authenticity is enacted. But even authenticity is an act. This is true down to the biochemical level: bigger pills will have greater placebo effects, and more suggestible people (often the spiritually and religiously inclined) will experience greater placebos. That is also to say, the more gullible people will.
And so a righteous rebellion stirs in the ironic mind: “Not me, I won’t be the sucker.” There’s one born every minute, they say, but not this one. I’ll question, I will tear down the facades, I will joke back, I will study the minutiae of social control, I will fight power structures, I will “deconstruct” your messages and marketing, and I will see the ideology and self-interest behind your purported virtues and values. In the end, the joke won’t be on me, it will be on whoever thought they could lure me in, fool me, and rule me.
Armed with an ironic stance towards society and its surfaces, always revealing the emptiness behind the words, the techniques used to manipulate us, and the crude ever-present workings of power, this type of mind becomes like a Houdini, breaking out of the prisons that others have created for us with their subtle-strings-attached offerings. And so a form of grim nihilism creeps in. Frank Sinatra is not singing about being authentic: read the context of the song, and you notice he’s really singing about consumer capitalism, about using the longing of people with suppressed dreams to make a buck and, while you’re at it, get a Beverly Hills house and the gold digger wife that comes with it.
But, then again, if we’re always dispelling the enacted enchantments of everyone else, where does this leave us? It leaves us in a place where there is really nothing left to believe in, to commit to, to live for, except the resistance and irony itself. That’s a pretty high price to pay. And it may not be the most, well, constructive stance towards life.
Enter a new sincerity; an ironic sincerity. This is the third stage in this simple model. What if you do realize exactly how Sinatra’s song was deliberately constructed by a sly mind that wanted to play on your vulnerable strings — and you choose to still believe in it? What if there is a place beyond pure irony, an irony taken so far that it turns on itself? A skepticism that is skeptical even of itself? Then the irony inverts, and, like a well springing open, something else can flow from it: hope, idealism, sincerity, connection; yes, even childlike trust, religious faith, spiritual piety. This faith is made of other stuff than blind or naive belief; it grows from the ruins of an ironic revolt against the lies and obfuscations of the world. Its hymn is a subtle one, a vague whisper: After deconstruction, reconstruction must follow.
So once you’ve learned to question the world and to pick it apart you begin, with sincere irony, to reconstruct it playfully. You begin learning the art of mastering the many placebo effects around us, for the benefit of our own happiness and sanity, and for the benefit of others. Another quote would be in order, one by the American novelist, David Foster Wallace:
“Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”
Exactly. This is sincere irony expressed better than I could have caught it. It’s from his A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, published in 1998. This was a voice ahead of its time. By making ourselves intentionally gullible, for just a moment, we get all the real (even biochemically observable) advantages of a stronger placebo effect. One such placebo effect is happiness, optimism, a sense of direction, a sense of agency, and even free will, a higher “subjective state” in everyday life.
We meet Morpheus trying to peddle us a red pill (the grim truth), and sure, what the hell, we’ll take it. But! Then we swiftly snatch the blue one (happy illusion) out of his other hand and gobble it down, too, before he can stop us. If Neo would have done that, he would have beaten the Matrix much more easily, and he would have had more fun along the way, too. Too bad nobody told him about that third option, the ironically sincere one.
How does being sincerely ironic empower us, then? Think about it. If you internalize the ironic ridicule of others before they have a chance of applying it to you, you can more easily shrug it off; you can work from a place of near invulnerability, and thus dare to be truly vulnerable, and thus bravely constructive, finding and suggesting new pathways for yourself and society. Mastery over irony-turned-on-itself allows for new sincerity. And extreme sincerity even becomes the sharpest weapon of irony, because it’s just so damn outrageous. This does not shield you from constructive criticism; rather it opens you up to it, because you always-already expect to be incomplete, to be open-ended, to be improved upon.
In the face of every “how dare you!” that inevitably comes your way, irony shields you. You are not shielded in the sense that “I tense up and lock it outside”. It’s more like an electric wire that carries the current of your dearest truths (again, open-ended truths to be improved upon by you, the reader). Yes, you will be laughed at and looked down upon, accused of “cringe”, eyes will be rolled, and all of that. But the very acknowledgment of that fact releases a creative spark, a freedom of expression that runs deeper than any bill of rights could guarantee.
And so I can say, with all the force of conviction, that sincere irony, in the hands of sublimely mediocre and ridiculously ordinary people, will change the face of the world. Because that’s where the wild things are. The sincerely ironic can reconstruct the world by virtue of their untamed imagination, which comes with the trust they build. The child returns; the beast is unleashed.
Where, then, does this leave us in regard to Frank Sinatra’s song? Well, look at it this way: The fact that the conception of the song and its powerful lyrics involved a clever marketing stunt does not need to take anything away from its quality of beauty. If it is true that all that ever reaches us is not the inherent “essence” of the thing we experience, but rather a surface that stimulates something in us, a surface that touches our senses and moves something inside of us — then does it not follow that the quality of the song belongs to the personal experience of the listener, rather than to the motives of its creators? Or, put differently, does not the acknowledgment of the fact that “all is surface” carry within itself the proposition that authentic expression can be found in anything that plays the strings of our soul, no matter for what reason?
Again, you can see that we’re taking the blue pill, after we’ve taken the red one. Stir, and it’s a purple cocktail, an elixir from the very crossroads of fact and fiction. Hence, it is by enriching our own capacity to experience the magic of reality that we can reclaim the qualities of hope, of progress, of faith, even after our ironic distancing from them. And so we can begin to find the nuggets of beauty in the cultural ruins that irony and nihilism leave behind: My Way may not be the result of the trembling heart of Frank Sinatra looking back upon his life, but it is the result of the sense of freedom and individual dignity offered by American life of that period, for all of its faults and vices. It hits home for many of us because it still expresses this collective experience, without which the song could never have been imagined in the first place. And so, we can simply enjoy it with good conscience, taking the power back of our own construction of meaning in the world; intentionally making ourselves credulous, gullible for just a moment. We can use it to, among other things, give our “subjective state” a little boost.
So after “deconstructing” and picking apart the many tricks played upon us, we can now “reconstruct” new tricks for the sake of magic and direction in our lives, and in the world around us. We can become our own wizards of Oz (and of one another), and begin to deliberately run the machinery of our own illusions, re-enchanting reality. Dorothy Gale found a little unassuming man behind the machinery that ran the smokescreens of the “great wizard of Oz”, and shouted accusingly “You’re a bad man!”, angry for having been fooled. To which he replied: “I’m not a bad man, just a bad wizard”. In the end, the wizard turned out to be (sublimely) mediocre, like the rest of us. But we can take up the mantle of all dispelled conjurors, and together co-create a more enchanted reality to live in. Dorothy could have stayed behind the curtains and learned a thing or two about running the machine herself. Would that prospect not lead us towards a more compelling open horizon than pure irony? We have worlds to construct, always finding new sources of magic. That is ultimately the reason I feel this stance, sincere irony, can salvage our souls and let us struggle playfully together towards beautifully impossible but tremendously important goals. Again, at the end of irony, at its omega point, when skepticism is turned even on itself, it brings that spark of the creative imagination that belongs only to the faithful.
Jesus: Lost and Found
At one point or another, I suppose it is inevitable that we should ruin this dinner party by talking about religion. As William James, this American “father of sociology”, wrote in his 1902 The Varieties of Religious Experience: “Religion, whatever it is, is man’s total reaction upon life”. It’s how we relate to the whole. Also known as: “the question of life, the universe, and everything”. Or, simply: What is of ultimate significance? What is, when all is said and done, truly important?
Let’s keep this broad view of what religion is in mind. What, then, can a sincerely ironic stance do for our religious relationship to reality, ourselves, life, the universe, and everything? Where does it leave that “faith” we were just speaking of?
Here, you can see a similar but distinct progression as the one outlined above: from sincere belief, through nihilism and skepticism, towards sincere irony. If sincerity would mean something like “believe in Jesus as the son of God, and as your personal savior who made miracles happen” where God is the ultimate source of all true, good, and beautiful in the world and the everpresent creator of it all, the nihilistic stance is simply to not believe in any of that: it’s bullshit.
And, of course, it is bullshit. Jesus couldn’t heal the sick, turn water into wine, or walk on water, nor was he born by a virgin, nor was he the son of God, nor was he resurrected. Mohammed couldn’t move a mountain, and Buddha didn’t fly around and cast fireballs (yep, that’s a thing in the scriptures); he didn’t even teleport across the Ganges. And even if God was in the world making miracles happen, why on earth would the focus be on wine and fireworks, or getting teenagers pregnant without consent (i.e. the Virgin Mary)? It’s preposterous not only at the level of empirical claims; it’s preposterous even at an existential and spiritual level, just too dumb to do any notion of God or [other placeholder of ultimate significance] any justice.
Yeah, yeah, of course we don’t believe in that stuff. But there are mysteries, things beyond our comprehension, things like… special and difficult-to-understand capabilities of rare, accomplished, spiritual masters, right? Things like Rupert Sheldrake’s biology of morphic fields, new frontiers of science that rediscover spiritual perennial truths beyond the rational mind. Or at least the possibility thereof. There are synchronicities and serendipities too unlikely to have occurred naturally. There are energies. Flows.
No, it’s all bullshit. There aren’t any miracles. Not even just a little, not even in a profound transrational sense, not even in the distant East. So stop it. No, Ruper Sheldrake’s theory of telepathic dogs isn’t correct. There aren’t any morphic fields and dogs aren’t telepathic. Certainly, with Joseph Campbell, that great interpreter of myths, we can look at “walking on water” as a metaphor for “mastering our unconscious” and so on; but believing in the miracle itself very demonstrably does harm. I won’t bore you with the work of the “new atheists” who labor to show this, but they do have a point.
It can feel a bit brutal, but it’s time to take the red pill. We live in a world entirely devoid of all magic and all miracles. That is to say, we live in a world where things are caused by other things in replicable, if complex, manners. That’s the same as understanding that there are no nooks and crannies left of magic or miracles, not even at farthest reaches of the mind, the universe, the far East, life, and everything. All in this sense “metaphysical” claims of all the religions are entirely false; and there is really no need for a shred of mercy or sentimentality about it.
Well yes, I see what you’re saying Hanzi, but…
No, seriously, stop it. You’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favors with that stuff. There is no “but”, no “both and” here, no “higher synthesis”, no hidden pattern in profound symbols that reveals an esoteric truth that unlocks your chosenness, no meditative insight that saves the metaphysical claims of any of the religions… No multiperspectivalism that puts you into contact with the indigenous spirit worlds. No healing practice that sends energies through the deepest layers of consciousness across continents.
That’s what killing God feels like: it’s a brutal dead end. It’s not supposed to feel good or right. It just is what it is: the death of ideas that are false. And then we go after all the saints and sages (they’re mediocre), every miracle, every siddhi, every magic residual in the known universe. Kill, kill, kill. Die, die, die.
And together with the magic, we also kill off all crazy guru abuses, many of the cults (but cults can and do still show up in political and self-development guises), and our tendency to disregard and disrespect science. We also kill off New Age abuse of desperate people, the cruel commercialization of the human soul where sad people pay for expensive crystals. Oh yeah, and then we kill the notion of “the soul” because that’s also magical thinking. Santa, too.
And now, if the red pill has been properly gobbled down, and only then, do we take the blue pill. It’s the ultimate marshmallow test of humanity. Real magic is felt, not believed. Or let me restate that a bit more precisely: Magic is an experiential, not a cognitive, category.
We can reconstruct God, yes, but only after we’re done properly killing them. Now, we are free to reconstruct religion, to delve head-first into the faith of the faithless (with the words of the philosopher Simon Critchley).
So the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything, can indeed be a better one than an absurd “42”. Once you’ve grounded the wire of spirituality with relentless skepticism and ironic distance and the most ruthless nihilism imaginable, you can begin to reclaim the spiritual realm. If you want to be crude about it, you could say that spiritual experience exists within and beyond the traditional religions, but that it becomes a good and constructive force in our day and age only at the other side of atheism. By first mastering atheism, for all of its unimaginative and judgmental simple-mindedness, we can begin to unleash the power of spirituality in our lives and beyond. Religion is recaptured from the monster of modern life.
Enter sincere irony: the teachings of ironic prophets. The religions that can grow and prosper in this realm aren’t exactly religions as we normally think of them. They excavate and revive not the metaphysical and miraculous claims of the contemplative traditions of religions, but their existential truths. And yes, the religions are true, they were right, as all of them point to insights that are correct but which modern everyday life is oblivious of.
Take Jesus, for example. It is true that we lost him as the literal son of a heavenly father and cosmic creator in our merciless purge of all magic from the world. We lost him, of course, in the sense that we no longer believe in what are, if you’re entirely sober about it, childish bullshit fairy tales. But now we can find him again, in a more mature and adult relationship. He’s not our savior or daddy figure. But he’s not entirely wrong, either: non-judgment and forgiveness really are higher truths if you look at it, there are very good reasons indeed to try to find universal love for all and to live by it; and, yes, we really are sinners in that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as inherently good but rather become good by always seeing how we are flawed and limited in our moral capacities. And yes, there really is a whole kingdom of God within us, waiting to be discovered in the higher reaches of our inner subjective states which also reach into the depth and core of our being. And yes, people who came before us really did go through torture for us to be here, so a little damn gratitude wouldn’t be such a bad idea. As far as I can see, Jesus has more correct and insightful things to say than almost anyone I can think of.
Likewise, with the Buddha, we can see that you literally can advance through the stages of meditative absorption if you diligently practice meditation, and that this even shows on a brain scanner. And yes, the stages are roughly yet correctly described and they can be taught and learned. And yes, our desires are always functions of our own minds and end up being frustrated one way or another, and we do well to transform their nature towards becoming less self-centered. And yes, we really do experience a loss of the discrete “sense of self” if we experience the deeper meditative and “higher” inner states. And all experience, pleasurable or painful, even the sense of a separate soul, really does melt away in a radical emptiness if we study it closely and attentively enough. Once we identify with the deeper layers of the mind, and with the consciousness of which we are a part, we can easily see that doing harm to others, to anyone, is in a sense doing harm to ourselves. So even the law of Karma has something going for it: What goes around comes around. That’s true even on a practical level. On average and over time, we tend to benefit from kind actions, when they are performed with discernment. The more we focus on others, the easier time we usually have maintaining a good subjective state ourselves, and genuinely kind actions tend to reward us with nice surprises later down the road, if seldom in the ways we expected. Even if counter-examples show up in the short run (we try to be kind and feel cheated, etc.), karma is certainly worth believing in, sincerely.
And with Islam we can experience a sense of wholeness or oneness that has indeed been shown empirically to support happiness and wellbeing (whereas the bleak belief structures of Buddhism, “everything is suffering”, actually tend to make you less happy unless paired with extensive contemplative practice). By focusing on one principle, one God, one path, we can feel more at home in the universe. Research has even shown that Muslims have the highest score of sense of “oneness” (which in turn correlates with life satisfaction) and atheists have the lowest. Oneness is a genuinely psychologically helpful fiction, like the belief in free will. People feel better and are healthier if they believe in free will, even if it factually speaking doesn’t exist. You get a sense of direction and control, and that affects how your mind self-organizes and avoids dumb excuses. Praise Allah for those placebo effects!
With indigenous religions and rituals, we can begin to reconnect to our bodies, to our communities, to nature, to the complexities of the world around us. We can come into contact with spirit worlds, not as a source of magic in the literal sense, but as a source of relationality and connection, not to mention a sense of enchantment. How inventive we must be, and how attentive to respecting the wisdom of the oldest cultures on the planet, to tap into this ancient homestead of the human psyche! Animist worldviews, for all their differences between them, were in some way or form how humans lived and expressed themselves for at least tens of thousands of years. It does make sense to think that what humans adapted to for so long also makes sense at a psychological level, more so than our modern lives. Arguably, the more we connect to this wisdom, the greater role can also be played by indigenous wisdom in creating new forms of sustainable life and community.
I would even include, among the things we can playfully reconstruct, the zeal of the revolutionary, of the communist, the anarchist: the belief in the possibility of overturning the injustices of society, of imagining new worlds for humans to live in. This is the fire of the French revolution and its sense that this moment can birth new worlds through an uncompromising commitment to justice. Many of the people who were part of anarchist Catalonia in the 1930s later remembered it as the happiest and most beautiful days of their lives. What a source of energy and agency such “revolutionary happiness” can bring! “The irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist” as philosophers Hardt and Negri once wrote about, can be channeled, if it is only approached responsibly; that is to say, playfully and ironically. And, of course, one must understand that there is no such thing as what Leon Trotsky called “the permanent revolution”; revolution occurs in moments of seismic change, in social and psychological earthquakes; it is analogous to falling in love, as discussed by the Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni. Between such “moments of movement”, there is institution, habit — longer stretches of mediocrity. But still, these moments — of the dramatic, the tremendous, the musical — are real enough, and they can be sparked. They really do happen in people’s lives; a sense of complete, shared ecstasy taking over one’s entire being, and they really can change society.
And beyond the political passions that stir the soul, even the occult can be played with: dark rituals, satanic cabaals, sex magic, and so on. Sure, the Order of the Golden Dawn never quite delivered on its mysteries and magic spells, nor did any of the esoteric groups of the last turn of the century. But reinvented magical rituals that draw upon the inner beast and its carnal desires, unfiltered dreams, and raw emotions can certainly release strong forces in our lives, at least for short, revolutionary moments. For what it’s worth, they inspired rock bands by the dozen, too. The variety of practices called “chaos magick” involves making ourselves entirely suggestible, entirely open to new beliefs, so as to actively reshape our own minds. The occult paths can help us hack our minds, dramatically and profoundly: they include the “fuck like a beast” insight to a degree that Christianity and classical (Theravadan) Buddhism did not. Or, less drastically, there is the ongoing popularization of BDSM and sex-positive events. Tantric sex is part of such explorations, as is tantra in the deeper and original sense (spirituality beginning from the embodied) and the use of sacred symbols. Pagan revivals of Odin and summer solstice rituals can also play a part here, but make sure not to link these to those crazy far-right ideas.
And, of course, there’s the whole reinvention of psychedelic culture and practice, making it more therapeutic, science-based, and responsible (a promising area — I’m also connected to the Psychedelic Society in the UK and respect their work — but it is one in which I’d like to see more caution and healthy conservatism; addiction and psychiatric harm are real things, as are abuses within this field). However, I’ll leave that last discussion to others.
Simply stated: There are a lot of blue pills to take, and they can bring us closer to truth, rather than farther away from it. This includes “transrational” truth; existential truths that lie beyond our analytical minds, but somehow ring true from a place within and beyond us.
Oh, let’s be honest — how we long for the ecstatic, for some real magic in our lives, for what life was supposed to be! And — as the mystical traditions taught, and the religions hinted at in their mythologies — truth brings us closer to magic, while illusion has it that the world is plain and mundane. In that sense, all the religions were right, and today’s prevailing atheist-rationalist-materialist-reductionist-scientist worldview is false.
Praise the Shallow
By now I imagine a question may come to mind for some readers, the more seriously religious ones. One might think that Hanzi takes a too sloppy and superficial view of religion, one that does not allow for serious commitment and depth that pertains to following one particular path. Should, then, religion and spirituality always remain piecemeal, only a collage of different trends that happen to pop up on the internet? What about going deep into and following a tradition, a contemplative path set by centuries of hard-earned human experience of the practitioners before us? Will deeper truths really reveal themselves to us if we treat these human accomplishments without respect? There’s Kierkegaard’s old “either-or”: make up your damned mind and take a leap of faith to live for something, and commit to that path! Or, with another saying that recurs these days from serious spiritual practitioners and followers of a path: “You have to eat the whole fish.” That is to say, to reap the full benefits of a spiritual path, of a contemplative religion or form of mysticism, you have to work according to the internal logic of that path and stay on it, like any good training program. Otherwise, it’s like you’re hopping back and forth from golf to basketball to chess — and neither path will open up and reveal its secrets to you, and none of them will yield to mastery. And it’s mastery that transforms you.
Okay, fair point. Well, the problem is — and I’ve seen this again and again — that the whole fish eats you. You think you’re going on a deep spiritual path, with your critical mind intact, but before you know it, you’re posting childish gobbledygook about miracles on Facebook to prove that your religion is the true one after all. You have lost touch with all shared reality, and as such you’ve lost all relevance to the world we live in. Why does this happen? Because you invest your life’s entire project in the narrative of one religion, to the extent that you so badly want all of its premises to be true, to be The Truth. In the end, at some deep level, you sell out the truth for some emotional and spiritual candy bars (for some inner rewards).
There’s a certain threshold we can pass, a great price to pay: a certain kind of sanity we’ll likely never recover. You thought you were an intrepid explorer of the kingdom within, but what you’ve become is actually no different from a Flat Earther (the folks who literally think the earth is flat, it’s a big thing these days). And then you start trying to convert everyone else to your beliefs, while bankrupting your own philosophy by tying it to your blatantly incorrect beliefs.
I’m not saying we can’t go deep into one tradition, or that it should always be avoided. All I am saying is that taking the red pill first, and then trying out several blue pills, is the safer and more productive way of being religious. From a position of sincere irony, you can then go deeper and deeper into the paths that open to you. You make certain that you don’t get sucked into one tunnel-visioned perspective, consuming you like a raw, rattling fish.
Many of these topics of “reinventing religion” have been explored by other works, like my friend Nick Jankel’s Spiritual Atheist, or why not Jamie Wheal’s Recapture the Rapture, and this is not an article on theology or religion. Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke has labored extensively to meet the meaning-crisis with a reinvention of religion for our time, sketching the deep structures of a reconstructed religiosity. Suffice to say here that sincere irony allows for the multi-pronged open exploration of faith, for the re-enchantment of a world left in spiritual shambles after the death of God. As such, we can meditate, pray, dream, play, and practice what Layman Pascal calls our “spiritual style” with no sense of shame or embarrassment, with no apologies made.
We can even try to speak our own truths about the great cosmic joke, and become ironic prophets of our own — and of one another. As such, the field of religion, of all of the religions and their perennial wisdoms (which are related but distinct), even of revolutions and the occult, open up to us. We can begin to practice piety in a space that is safer and compatible not only with modern science, but also with critical thinking, and with the sincere irony that increasingly marks our digital age.
But remember. All the religious and spiritual experiences of the world will not efface broken dishwashers and people cutting in line at the bus stop. Religion and zeal can be reinvented and rediscovered with sincere irony, as can wisdom, faith, rapture, ritual, mystery, and contemplation, but they only ever return us, after some wild roller coaster rides through passion, over transcendence, and into inner peace, to a (hopefully) sublime mediocrity. It is this sublime mediocrity, this inescapable “ground of being”, that we’re perfecting.
So, once you’ve truly killed God, you can take the blue pill and begin to use those sought-after both-ands of science and spirituality of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Here, you can combine ruthless reason with the perfectly unreasonable longings of the (scientifically speaking, non-existent) soul. Before the proper death of God, magic will always sneak in, not as a wonderful re-enchantment of the cosmos, but as an endless source of deceit and disappointment. Even the saint, even the prophet, is mediocre. In the end, even Jesus doesn’t look a lot like Jesus (simple thought experiment: what would you think of a guy who, in a fit of self-righteous rage, turned over the table of some poor tourist trinket vendors at a cathedral?). And that’s why we need to lose him — and then find him, again and again. And that’s the real miracle of religion: You can kill God, you can even crucify Him and mock Him with a crown of thorns while you’re at it, and He still shows up three days later, happy to go.
If God is always on His way to the guillotine, if He’s always beheaded and overturned by a new revolution of the critical mind, of new perspectives and life experiences, what you get is The Headless God. An open-ended God. A God of exploration. Now that is the God that’s left even after the crudest murders of the sacred, and that’s a God truly worth worshipping. If being whacked by the critical mind, if being crucified and denied, if being killed and mocked, still doesn’t kill you and you are still reborn, still wearing the crown of thorns, well then at least my hat’s off and I’m on my knees before you, ready to give you everything. With this view of the divine, “the sacred” is revealed through a relentless series of iconoclasms.
This sincerely ironic reconstruction of faith goes beyond the tired cliché of “spiritual but not religious” (which is, for many reasons we needn’t belabor, a dead end): it helps us to reinvent not only spirituality (the experience and expression of the higher inner states), but religion itself (the meaning-making fabric of our relatedness to reality). Religion is redefined; it escapes its confines and combines with art, science, and critical thinking; it becomes tailored to the Internet age and to every unique person and to every context, to every moment. Not every moment and aspect of life can realistically be “spiritual”… But we all do have some kind of “religion”. Hence, rather than trying to be “spiritual but not religious”, we should admit that we’ve been “religious but not (always) spiritual” all along. If that makes sense.
Sincere irony can rescue God. And then God does save our fallen souls at the auspicious crossroads of fact and fiction. Isn’t that sublimely mediocre?
The Sound of Both Ands Clapping
As a last note on this, I’d like to mine the gold strains of some other both-ands that are closely related to sincere irony.
A famous Zen koan asks “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”. The Zen koans were designed to radically break us out of our conceptual minds and lead us into the realm of pure paradox and the strokes of wordless insight that thrive there. Perhaps at a somewhat less profound level, there are paradoxical both-ands that capture different aspects of the “oscillation” between irony and sincerity. Some of these have been proposed by the Dutch art scholars, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van der Akker: pragmatic romanticism, informed naivety, and magical realism.
Now, we have to choose our both-ands carefully. Not all both-ands are born equal. The point is that the two seemingly opposite elements must conflict in a manner that sparks a desirable field of possibilities. So, you cannot walk around both-anding just anything and think that you have achieved a greater synthesis or wisdom. Both rob the bank and give to the poor? Well, it’s good enough for a fairy tale about Robin Hood, but probably not a good idea in reality. Both being nationalist and socialist? Well, that spells National Socialism, a.k.a. Nazism.
As mentioned, the philosopher Kierkegaard titled his most famous work “either or”: you have to make up your mind sometimes, take a leap of faith, take a stand, to truly live in authenticity. But the point here is that both-and contains either-or; but either-or does not contain both-and.
If you’ll allow me a bit of tangled reasoning:
- It’s not either “both-and” or “either-or”;
- it’s both “both-and” and “either-or”.
- It’s both-and with discernment.
All of this is just to say that there are productive and destructive paradoxes; so you cannot combine just any contradiction arbitrarily (again, combining both toilet and kitchen is not a mark of wisdom). To do both-ands well, you have to define the two opposing elements non-arbitrarily, in manners that make sense on a deeper level that enriches both sides. And you do this by first differentiating between the two, separating them out fully, and only then do you experiment with combining them. You differentiate, and then you reintegrate where possible and desirable.
Let’s get started with some more both-ands, then. Good ones, not bad ones.
Pragmatic romanticism is the principle of both taking up an unapologetically romantic stance towards life, like those passionate painters, poets, and philosophers of Romanticism in the 19th century, and to do so as pragmatically as humanly possible. Yes, life should be enchanted, and yes, you have to follow that unique inner spark and express your individuality, because only that can truly bring harmony between what is within and what is around us. Yes, mountaineering and (with the words of Jamie Wheal) “recapturing the rapture” of nature lead to a sense of the dramatic! The tremendous! The cosmic images of the Hubble space telescope speak to us, and then they can speak through us, as we channel our inspiration into the world. The romantic moment, be it of spiritual bliss, creative insight, or even falling in love, makes the entirety of the world and its suffering somehow “worth it”. And yet — none of that will by itself resolve, for instance, the climate crisis. And the climate crisis will sweep much of the potential for such beauty off the face of the Earth. Thus, it is by stretching the soul between these two poles, by holding on to them both at once, that one can create movements that work from the spirit of the romantic, and towards real solutions. But think about it: Do you think that being purely pragmatic is enough? Where will the strokes of genius come from? Where will the tenacity to go that extra mile come from? Where will the inspiration that fuels profound transformation of the entire economy and way of life come from? It comes from the bleeding heart, from a sense of tragedy, from those moments when we are in love with life. There is, in this sense, nothing more pragmatic than pure, unapologetic romanticism. Pragmatism is lost without love and rapture, without the romantic. But the moments of rapture cannot sustain themselves. A climate movement, for instance, can only be truly successful if it deliberately uses the love for and mystery of nature to fuel human engagement with science, policy, and the dirtiest of all: politics. (The same could be said, by the way, of marriage.) So if the world has been divided between pragmatists and romantic souls, it appears that a most fruitful paradox to meditate upon becomes pragmatic romanticism. The two may perhaps never be happily married, but in the both-and that attempts to grasp them in one embrace, there is creativity and hope to be found.
Informed naivety is the both-and of knowing that what you believe in is indeed naive, seeing how it is “impossible”, but still working from that vision because it will still move things in the right direction. So maybe it is naive to think that climate change can be curbed, or that political polarization can be mitigated and people can begin to understand one another better, or that we can create free and fair solarpunk autonomous zones of postcapitalism and distributed governance. But the very fact that people do insist on working naively on those issues means that potentials emerge that otherwise wouldn’t have. The world is run and reproduced by realists, but it is transformed, bit by bit, by dreamers. The sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin once noted that, in times prior to democracy, the end of the divine right of kings was unimaginable, and that today, the end of capitalism is equally so. Yet, democracy did emerge, once the conditions were ripe for it. It is by being students of such conditions of transformation and change that we can adopt and live by an informed naivety. Such naivety keeps some of our childlike qualities, like innocence and directness of experience, but attempts to marry them to the discerning and protective mind of the educated adult. It keeps the door open to alternatives, to other worlds, and it feeds our (non-existent) souls with hope and inspiration. The cypherpunks and the hackers of the Ethereum blockchain community serve as an example: The deeper they delve into computation and the crude incentives of economic modeling and finance, the more they can begin to imagine radically different futures of freedom and equality under decentralized cooperation.
Magical realism you might have heard of already: It’s a big thing in literature, with authors like Haruki Murakami (author of e.g. Kafka on the Shore, 2005) combining a bit of social realism, and renderings of everyday life and history, with magical interruptions that break through common reality, in a sense commenting upon it and helping us reach deeper beneath its surfaces. And so boring bus rides and visits to libraries are combined with talking cats and forces of fate that drive the story: “Your problem is that your shadow is a bit — how should I put it? Faint.” comments the black tomcat. It speaks to something many of us can recognize, a lacking sense of fullness when we’re not following our inner path, but it couldn’t have been as succinctly described without the invocation of magic into the narrative, in this case talking cats and thinned-out shadows. This has been an influential movement around the world, particularly in Latin American 20th century literature. Literary scholars are crazy about it and love to write dissertations on the topic. But in this context, I’m thinking of magical realism in the sense where it is applied to life itself, even beyond the realm of art and literature. Yes, we may need to “stick to reality” to remain sane and effective; but our experienced reality is always a projection of our minds, as cognitive science has revealed with increasing clarity. And, as discussed, our minds are more pliable and plastic than we normally imagine, so we can always play with how the world is perceived, interpreted, and participated in. We have available to us the vast potentials of magic and mystery; and, indeed, the farther we travel into the true mechanisms of reality, the farther reaches of relativity, quantum physics, of cosmology, of big history, of complexity, of studies of consciousness and cognition, of sociology, the more mysterious it all actually seems, and the more tools of re-enchantment indeed become available. This is actually a path taken by some of the most forward-thinking performance magicians of our day and age: My friend, Ferdinando Buscema, loves to reveal some of the “magic” behind his tricks, and, in that same move, he ironically makes the tricks seem yet more magical. As such, he combines his background as a mechanical engineer with the art of magic. Ferdinando was inspired by TechGnosis, a 1998 book by Erik Davis, which explores the historical connection between technology and magic and a deep view of cyberculture; indeed, he was inspired to such a degree that he committed the entire book to his active memory, word for word, including the position of each word on each page, in effect carrying the book with him at all times. There is magic in technology, and technology in magic. So magical realism does not only use magic to re-enchant the world of crude physics and reason; it uses crude mechanics to enhance our connection to the magical. In the mathematician Warren Weaver’s 1949 article “Science and Complexity”, he guides us through the development of science, through mechanical physics (things that are sure to occur), to statistical chemistry (things that are likely to occur), to complexity in life and society: that which seems unlikely, impossible even, but nevertheless occurs despite it all. The magical, the emergent, sparks from building step by step on the crudest and simplest rules. And strangely, that somehow makes it even more enchanted, even more connected to the basic movements and regularities of the cosmos. The understanding of complexity as a field of science springs from crude mechanics and reductive physics, and yet, from that very same complexity, springs what appears to be magic.
Each of the above (pragmatic romanticism, informed naivety, and magical realism) somehow relates to the difficult interplay between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. We need to practice stretching our minds between two polarities: from profound enchantment and sense of intuition, wholeness, and radical openness on one hand (right hemisphere), to understanding complexity and the crudest scientific and logical discernment on the other (left hemisphere). It’s interesting to notice how great resistance there is to this simple insight. The world of humans consists almost entirely of people of one type or the other — those that seek to save science, realism, and reason from magic, idealism, and woo woo, or those that seek to save the spiritual realm from cynicism, scientism, and reductionism. In the greater scheme of things, it’s okay that different people take different positions on one side or another of this polarity, even different cultures do, as it’s part of a greater oscillation that runs through society at large. But for sublime mediocrity to be served best in our own lives, the richest position by far is an uncompromising, but calibrated, both-and.
Except for these three both-ands, you can extend the list. Here are some suggestions of my own: the crossroads of fact and fiction, struggle-reborn-as-play, conservative radicalism, game change, and, of course, sublime mediocrity.
- The “crossroads of fact and fiction” is the place where dabs of fiction are used to speak more truly and clearly about facts and reality.
- Struggle-reborn-as-play is when we deepen the sense of our struggles for a kinder and more just world to the point where the love of and gratefulness towards the world becomes apparent as the very underlying source of these same struggles, so that they suddenly appear less like a war and more like a playful experiment. We become “happy revolutionaries”, committed to and flowing from what social theorist Jason Storm has called “revolutionary happiness”.
- Conservative radicalism is when you commit fully to transforming society, but take a careful and gradual stance towards how radical transformation can realistically come about.
- Game change (as described in detail in my other work) is when you accept that life is a game with winners and losers, but still think it’s an unjust game, and resolve to change that game for the better in regards to all of its players.
And beyond that, there are more dangerous but still potentially fruitful concepts that we should only approach with the greatest caution, because they can easily misfire and bring “the worst of both worlds”: sneaky kindness, hierarchical equality, religious nihilism, or idealistic machiavellianism. Without venturing into these, explore them at your own peril. My other work certainly tries to venture into these treacherous waters and time will tell if I overstretched.
Wrathful compassion is another somewhat risky one. I got it from a friend, Anasuya Sengupta, who is, in my own estimation, an exceedingly accomplished social justice activist. She’s the kind of person that many feminists and (anti-)postcolonialists aspire to be; always very enmeshed in the down-to-earth duty to balance out the injustices of the web and of information, always taking up new projects to help people in need in real communities around the world, and always very well informed and thoughtful in her theoretical underpinnings and methods of collaboration. Never complaining or bitter, even in the face of harsh difficulties, always constructive, active, and brave. If you ask her about the source of this admirable and rare level of engagement, she speaks of that quality of “wrathful compassion”. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for everyone: it requires the wrath to be truly felt and embodied, and then connected to a source of compassion that flows from a genuine sense of injustice. In theory, any abusive leader, or destructive rebel, could claim that their mistreatment of others is really just a deeper expression of wrathful compassion. It could easily be used as a justification for why certain basic ethics don’t apply to us. But it is, as far as I can tell, a very powerful both-and if done correctly: the unstoppable energy and agency of wrath, channeled towards universal purposes motivated by compassion.
Yet another, somewhat less dangerous, one is empirical pessimism combined with theoretical optimism: yes, it is true that civilizational collapse may occur sooner or later, and yes, we’re all mediocre and likely to fail to change the ways of the world, and yes, things always go horribly awry sooner or later (pessimism, then, in the empirical sense: what will actually happen is often pretty bad: hence, “empirical pessimism”). But it is still true that whenever we find out something that brings us closer to truth, justice, and beauty, such qualities nevertheless manifest (so, in theory, the greater good is always there as a potential, and still worth striving for: “theoretical optimism”). The two sides actually fit together: admitting that death, collapse, the ubiquity of mistakes, crash boom bang, are the rule, not the exception, takes nothing away from the sense that all things connect in the end, in a larger view, and are worth resolving with truth-seeking. So in the short run, the conservatives and cynics are always right: “It’ll never work, guys. Get a job. And a damn haircut.” But in the long run, at least some of the most radical among us always turn out to be right: democracy did emerge, as did human rights and gender equality before the law, and the social welfare state. The universe has literally evolved from dust to Shakespeare, why then should it stop now? It’s a tragic and eternally broken world, but because there is such a thing as truth, the very same brokenness always holds the promise of something unimaginably wonderful emerging. The tragedy of the universe also holds within it the capacity for the good and the just, towards which the truth leads us. It’s pretty close to Gandhi’s old dictum: “Truth is God”. That’s a God worth keeping and submitting to.
The Double Extremist Stance
All of these are fruitful, if not innocent and harmless, paradoxes for us to contemplate, to play with, and to experiment with. What is the sound of both ands clapping? What potentials are we keeping ourselves from by thinking that one extreme always excludes its apparent opposite? The balanced mind is not necessarily one of golden means, of averages and compromises; a stronger balance can be achieved by becoming not just an extremist, but a double extremist. The farther you go in one extreme, the more potential is actually opened up at the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum, resulting in a wider embrace of life and reality. For instance, we may attempt to be extremely secular, and extremely religious, both at once.
Life is always-already an experiment, and thus it is actually irresponsible for us not to take seriously its vast possibilities and potentials. We have every right to try to transform society, and ourselves, even if it is admittedly always a dangerous business. Because the status quo is also dangerous, also insane. With this call to live by sincere irony, I thus invite you to take a stance of enlightened madness, of double extremism, and to help to turn our struggles into play.
Not only does this stance fuel a sense of hope and humor during life’s darker tunnels and its sub-mediocre patches of tragedy, but it powers our shared capacity to reimagine and reshape our lives, and ultimately the world. Even if (and when) we fail, that’s a win for Protopia.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook and Twitter, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here. See www.metamoderna.org for more content.