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The Zeitgeist as Evidence of Subtle Patterns and Connections

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This idea of the workings of the Zeitgeist might be connected, for our purposes in tracing the different forms of wholeness, with the earlier posting here about the subtlety of causal mechanisms implied in the statement, "Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped bring about the American Civil War.” See "SEEING THINGS WHOLE: Order vs. Chaos in the Flow of Events," at click here In both instances, we are led to envision a much more organic, and intricately woven network of interaction among the elements of a cultural system than most of generally imagine, indeed moreso than the human mind could readily comprehend.


In my younger years (the latter half of my teens), I was much taken with the insights and intellectual system-building of Sigmund Freud. One of his early and principle ideas was the notion of "free association" as a tool of uncovering the secrets of the unconscious.

Free association is in itself an idea that is founded on the existence of important and subtly hidden connections: the idea was that the patient, following the instruction to speak whatever came spontaneously to his/her mind, would show by the network of associations what were the hidden meanings and feelings and motives at work in the psyche. The psyche itself, in other words, is composed of important interconnections.

A month or so ago, as I was delving into Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, I was quite struck by some profound similarities between Proust's approach and Freud's idea of free association. Unfortunately, I myself cannot now remember some things not all that long past, i.e. I cannot recall the specifics of what I saw in Proust that seem so strikingly akin to the Freud's method. (If anyone out might be able to describe what it likely was in Proust that I picked up on as being akin to free association, please come forward with your description.)

I thought, isn't that an interesting kinship to find between such different minds.

Then, shortly after New Year's, as it happened, I came across yet another kindred instance.

I had decided to read The Autobiography of Mark Twain. It's called an autobiography, but actually it was assembled by someone else, almost a half century after the death of the great American author. Mark Twain himself had attempted autobiography a number of times, creating various fragments and, near the end of his life, giving lengthy interviews to someone who was to transfer them into print in some sort of publishable autobiography to appear long after Twain's death.

I learned this history from the introduction to this volume. In telling that history, the editor (Charles Neider), presents Twain's own concept of how his autobiography should unfold:

“Finally in Florence, in 1904, I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography," Twain wrote: "Start it at no particular time in your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime..."

Even when that effort had petered out, and he'd turned toward the method of using an interviewer to record his ramblings, Twain "requested him to publish the Autobiography not in chronological order but in the sequence in which it was written and dictated." About which Neider reflects: "What an extraordinary idea! As though the stream of composition time were in some mysterious way more revealing than that of autobiographical time!"

Yes, perhaps it's an extraordinary idea in terms of the canons for effective autobiographical composition. But what strikes me is that --in that era-- perhaps Twain's idea was not so very extraordinary. What strikes me as really extraordinary is the way that same idea seems in this time in Western civilization to pop up in such different embodiments of the era: : a theorist working on a new psychology in Vienna at the beginning of the century, an American author and humorist with roots in Missouri and the American West, and a reclusive French novelist writing innovative fiction in Paris ten or twenty years later-- all working from the belief that the path to meaning was to found in a similar way, trusting the associative links, following the subtle connections of mind and memory.

I'm not certain that this apparent parallelism in the thinking of Freud and Proust and Twain is a manifestation of some deeper pattern unfolding in Western civilization in that turn-of-the-century era, though I strongly suspect it. And if these instances do point toward some deeper pattern, I'm not prepared to interpret what it might say about the larger field of cultural forces and meanings, though my guess is that it quite interesting, possibly manifesting an effort of the life-force to create a space for spontaneity to break out of the strait-jacket of Victorian era over-control.

Regardless of the particular validity or meaning of this specific pattern, I bring it up as an illustration of something about the deep and subtle workings of cultural forces-- something that has been designated by the mysterious concept of the Zeitgeist, which is German for "the spirit of the times."

There are many instances of interesting patterns of thought appearing in different places in different contexts but in the same era, parallelisms that seem to be evidence of some kind of cultural force-field operating so as to shape the minds of many individuals and thus of what might be called the consciousness of the era.

(I hope it is evident enough why I suggested that this item could be paired, in terms of our exploring the many dimensions of SEEING THINGS WHOLE, with the previous piece that explored the implications of the statement about how Uncle Tom's Cabin helped bring about the American Civil War. In both cases, the idea in question requires us to begin envisioning how incredibly intricate and deep and subtle must be the play of causal connections that constitute the human cultural system.)

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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