Everyone should read Iain McGilchrist’s wonderful book called The Master and his Emissary. His basic thesis is that we live in a divided world, which is mirrored in the brain: that the two different hemispheres of the brain actually present asymmetrical, often conflicting versions of the world. When the left hemisphere (the emissary) usurps the right hemisphere (the master), society becomes become machine-like and pathological. But when these two hemispheres are in proper relationship to each other, we have collective surges of high culture, like the renaissance.
The left/right hemisphere dynamic is true description of our actual state, regardless of the neuro-science, to which McGilchrist devotes about 500 pages. Isn’t it true that we are deeply divided creatures — divided between left and right, conservative/liberal; between cultural creative and defenders of order; between those who want to build walls and others who want to open borders; between the ones who would like to embrace the foreigner and those who would cast him out? These polarities play out in the world, but also within our own being.
Personally, I’ve always had an aversion to conservatism, almost like disgust (disgust for others being, ironically enough, a strong trait of conservatives). Conservatism is close to the left hemisphere, which is related to the right hand, or the hand of order, and I can’t abide order-obsessed people. It’s hard for me to relate to people who want to build walls, who appear to me to be so absolutely narrow in their thinking: right-wing conservatives seem almost like aliens from my perspective.
However, I’ve been wondering. As the nasty conservatives don’t see to go away, is there anything to learn from them? Is there an enlightened form of conservatism? The thing is: there will always people around saying: we need security, we need to build walls, we need to protect ourselves from foreigners, maintain the tradition, etc. This might even be the majority of the population.
What to do? Perhaps instead making fun ceaselessly — like liberal comedians shooting that fish in the barrel that turn out to be sharks — it may be better to try to understand where they are coming from. If Jordan Peterson is right in saying that political alignment has as much to do with biological character traits as social construction, maybe conservatives are there ‘for a reason’. Maybe we have to learn to live and talk to and understand conservatives, even if that is hard to stomach for open border types such as myself. Maybe we need conservative people around, to manage things, to keep things from flying off the handle. In any case, one can be sympathetic to the fact that a great part of the population remains conservative, which is quite a difficult thing for progressives to understand. And the question might be asked: how can such radically opposed beings as conservatives and liberals, coexist in the world?
Conservatives are all about structure, clarity, rules and regulations, and all that. They don’t relate to complexity; they don’t like chaos. The want to keep things the same, while liberals manically try to change things. Of course, it’s not that simple: We could say that there are left wing conservatives and right-wing conservatives, as it seems that there are innovative and conservative types on both ends of the political spectrum. However, in general, lefties are Utopian thinkers, and righties are always trying to turn back the clock to some golden age.
Coming back to the brain, it is known that when people lose right brain function in a stroke, they often only perceive a flat surface and lose their ability to see depth and dimension. This reductionism is characteristic of conservatism in general, the desire to keep things circumscribed. Conservatives limit themselves to the narrow band width of tribe or country or border or right vs wrong — they are very categorical and defensive.
Maybe the greatest thinkers are able to integrate both sides, to be categorical as well as open-minded, to be contentious as well as radically experimental. To be ‘integral’ as it has been called in some circles, is the idea that at a certain point of development we should be able to see the virtue in all stages or types or qualities of being. This is an extravagant point of view, because it involves integrating what we dislike, our actual shadow. Very few will take a panoramic view of course, because most of us are so entirely entrenched in tribalism, and terrified of ‘otherness’. But we could actually cultivate the ability to think both categorically (with the left hemisphere, metaphorically speaking) and to feel universally (with the right hemisphere — metaphorically speaking again).
This would require going beyond the ‘machine metaphor’ as McGilchrist describes it, or the control of the right brain by the left. Since the scientific enlightenment most of us have been converted to the view that the universe is made of things or objects or mechanisms or atoms — which is a convenient way to think, but it isn’t obviously true. We can understand that the notion of machine/man makes sense to the left hemisphere or the more rational part of the brain: to ration means to divide, to cut reality into pieces, which is our extraordinary and potentially demonic capacity. However, a machine is fundamentally a dead object; it has no breath or pulse in the same way a living being does; it is vastly deeper and more complex than a mere thing. Life tilted to the left hemisphere perspective treats is to live like a parasite on a corpse, so to speak.
The machine metaphor doesn’t actually make sense to the right hemisphere, because the right sees context, mystery, the depth and dimension, poetics, the transient flavours of feeling more or less. The right hemisphere is more connected to an embodied world, rather than a merely conceptual one. It tells us that the complexity of our experience can’t be encompassed by mere description, because the body and subjective experience is so complex. When the left brain usurps the right, then society takes a bend towards totalitarianism, which is an obsession with machine-like order, above all else.
I have a certain love of 19th Century literature: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George Sand, Conrad, Poe, Melville. Perhaps that is because in the 19th Century the machine metaphor version of reality hadn’t taken hold of people to the radical extent that it has today. Maybe people wrote and though less like machines back then — at the same time they had a lot of empirical understanding and were able to describe the encroachment of this machine consciousness on the world, and the various pathologies that resulted from that.
If you want know about pathology read Nietzsche, another 19th Century genius — my god! He is so devastating in his critique of religious pathologies and scientific reductionism as well. Nobody writes with that kind psychological depth anymore, and I think that’s because we have become very mechanical in our thinking processes — perhaps because we are working within machines all the time. In any case, what is interesting about the 19th Century is that it describes this period of transition into machine consciousness or what is called the industrial revolution. And I think that today we are in a period of transition again, from what to what is more difficult to say.
Personally, what really has struck me in the past couple of years is that much learning has transitioned from reading to watching videos. I fear that writing will become anachronistic. Are we moving back into an oral culture where one has to be very quick with speech? Would the great luminaries of the past have actually written books if they were alive today, or would they just post their ideas on You Tube? Perhaps, in the future people will just ‘speak books’. Of course I adore the solitary pleasures of reading and I want to keep this alive. But still, you have to wrestle with the snake of the times.
To sum up, we need to know all sides of human nature. If you loath conservatives, for instance, it might be good to get to know the conservative within, to tame him for your purposes. There are times to build walls and times to smash them down, times to institute order, and other times for creative chaos. In my view, the middle way is best way: the meeting and union of these two opposite forces, the force of creation and the force of retreat. If we remain tribal we tend degenerate into caricatures of ourselves; if we are too universal, we lose our ground. We should pay attention to both sides of the Janus brain, or our divided self.
Perhaps cultural creatives and the left in general is in an overly politicized, overly-academic cul-de-sac. Perhaps the avant-guard has run its course, and tradition has become monumental kitsch. Perhaps the bureaucratic and cowardly consciousness that comes from the left-brain oriented culture of safe spaces, the more conservative wing of the left is in ascendance — not that we don’t need safe spaces but we also need danger and challenge. When there is no middle ground, a void emerges and weird movements like the so called ‘alt-right’ flourish. You know the world is obviously upside-down when the alt-right is claiming to be the counter culture, but I think that this is a much a result of stagnation on the left, as reactionary movements on the right. The world is not only divided, it’s asymmetrical and topsy-turvy, like our brains.
So, what to do? The answer is found in the old stories, and also in our own brains. We may have to go out and meet our deepest adversary, that evil monster squid that is the other side, and converse with him — or to continue to spin our wheels in the mud of samsara, as the Buddhist say.