The Parable of Johnny and Petey, and the Partial Death Instinct
Sowing the Seeds of the anti-Word
The Parable of Johnny and Petey
Our tale begins in medias res and ends in nihilo.
Johnny watches as the ashes of his arch-nemesis Jimmy’s home rise up to the heavens, the flames casting little Petey’s form in stark silhouette as he blows out the match. The screams of the family, now barely audible, are quenched in the roar of the consuming fire.
“But Petey, this isn’t what I thought you meant!”
“But Johnny, I said the rich could burn in hell, and you agreed.”
Johnny holds the stool steady as little Petey adjusts the noose around Father Johnson’s neck. The makeshift gallows they’ve constructed under Mrs. Montgomery’s giant oak tree is sturdy. It will bear the weight of the neighborhood priest.
“But Petey, this isn’t what I thought you meant.”
“But Johnny, I said God is a tyrant and his priests corrupt, and you agreed.”
Johnny holds the gun, his arms outstretched and trembling. Tied to the chairs across from him are his parents. A hand placed on his shoulder gives gentle encouragement. Little Petey is standing there beside him, patient.
“But Petey, this isn’t what I thought you meant…”
“But Johnny, I said that parents are oppressors, and you agreed.”
Johnny looks out over the blackened landscape. The stench of death and decay is making his eyes water. The absence of any sound of life is alarming. Just the heavy breathing of little Petey, close behind him, the pale dawn reflected in his cold grey eyes.
“What now, Petey? There’s nothing left.”
“What now, Johnny? Why, Johnny, now we can do whatever we want.”
Back in high school or college, I can’t remember which, I noticed a recurring pattern in human nature which I dubbed “the ABA’ pattern.” In music theory this is the simple ternary form, like a minuet and trio: an opening section (A), followed by a contrasting second section (B), concluding with a repetition or variation on the original section (A’). The end of the journey ends up resembling the beginning, but given new meaning and substance by virtue of the middle section.
Funnily enough, there’s a meme format for something very similar (though it applies to a permanent state, not a process): the bell-curve or midwit meme. Apparently it spontaneously manifested from the realm of forms in 2018 on 4chan. Here’s an example:
The ABA’ process can play out in a single life. Take the child with blind faith in the religion of their parents (A) who as a teen and young adult goes through a period of agnosticism or violent atheism (B), only to return to their faith more mature, with a knowledge and inner understanding that was lacking in either of the previous stages (A’). Kind of like that T.S. Eliot quote.
Another example: When a psychopath seduces a woman, he imitates an ideal man. He thus produces in the woman what Lobaczewski calls a “para-appropriate response.” The response would be appropriate if personality pathology weren’t in the picture, because the image projected—of confidence, strength, intense interest, passion, romance, deep bonding love, giving what she needs—is a facsimile of something real, something which would be healthy if it came from a mature man. Men can learn a thing or two from psychopaths in this regard—not in the sense of becoming a scummy two-faced pick-up artist, but about the types of qualities they should develop if they want to be a real man, of which the psychopath is a mere caricature. To put it bluntly:
A: psycho faker douche.
B: weak incel simp.
A’: responsible loving man-Chad.
This is also the basic overall structure of Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration: a primitive level of primary personality integration, three disintegrative levels in the middle, and the highest level, the culmination of personality development: secondary integration. Both primary and secondary integration are stable personality structures, but qualitatively different from each other.
The problem is that many people (the midwits) cannot necessarily see the difference between A and A’. They may mistake sainthood for psychopathy and vice versa. Neither can the “low-wits,” who may think the high-level believer is no different from themselves. Whereas those at a higher level can see and understand lower levels (because they know them through inner experience ), the higher is invisible from a lower level—a lack of spiritual “depth” perception, perception is leveled onto a flat plane. Psychopaths are at the extreme—assuming everyone is as self-centered as they are, and deluding themselves that they are actually superior.
The multilevel structure is the key to understanding some of the problems Igor Shafarevich tackles in The Socialist Phenomenon (SP), but for which he doesn’t provide a fully satisfying answer. I’m thinking particularly of his explanation of the ability of socialist ideology to inspire masses of people. This and the next post will delve into the details of what I think he is missing—though he comes very close.
For example, in trying to determine the reasons for the disparity between the socialist ideal and how that ideal is put into practice, Shafarevich makes an important point. He observes that Leninism and Stalinism, for example, were not aberrations which “betrayed” the Revolution—at least not in the sense that many vanilla Marxists and socialists thought (and still think). They didn’t “go too far.” In fact, their only failure was that they didn’t go far enough, by chiliastic socialism’s own standards. The Bolsheviks were never able to implement full communality of property and wives. They were never able to fully stamp out religion. They were never able to fully dismantle the family. And they were never able to equalize the human personality by fully eliminating individuality.
Shafarevich argues that the main reason they failed had do to external circumstances—the contingencies of famine, war, and the necessity of contact with the outside world. Given a great enough crisis, Shafarevich speculates, it is at least conceivable that socialism can succeed. Technically, he is correct, especially on that last point, if we grant him his point that the ultimate telos of socialism is the extinction of humanity.
And Shafarevich understands that socialism is fundamentally anti-human—that the successful implementation of the destruction of the family alone would be catastrophic. For example, he cites a study on orphans the implications of which suggest that removing infants from their mothers to be raised by a collective of nurses (a common socialist fantasy) would destroy their development—a third will die, many will never learn to speak or walk, and the rest will have their development otherwise irreparably stunted. He writes:
This may be applied to the whole of a society built on the consistent implementation of socialist ideals. Not only people but even animals cannot exist if reduced to the level of the cogs of a mechanism. Even such a seemingly elementary act as eating is not reducible to the mere satiation of the organism. For an animal to eat, it is not enough that it be hungry and that food be available; the food must be enticing, “appetizing,” as well. And in more complex actions involving several individuals, such as raising of young, the common defense of territory or hunting, animals establish relations that usually are ritualistic in nature and that elicit great excitement and undoubtedly provide deep satisfaction. For animals, these ties constitute “the meaning of life”; if they are broken, the animal becomes apathetic, does not take food, and becomes an easy victim for a predator. To a far greater extent, this applies to man. But for him, all the aspects of life that make it attractive and give it meaning are connected with manifestations of individuality. Therefore, a consistent implementation of the principles of socialism deprives human life of individuality and simultaneously deprives life of its meaning and attraction. As suggested by the example of the orphaned children, it would lead to the physical extinction of the group in which these principles are in force, and if they should triumph through the world—to the extinction of mankind. (SP, pp. 271-272)
But in my opinion he doesn’t place enough emphasis on the fact suggested in the above and brought up repeatedly by Lobaczewski: these dreams are technically impossible, because the most important of those “contingencies” is human nature itself (the very reason orphans respond catastrophically to removal from a stable mother figure). The socialist doctrines are so alien to human nature that a majority will never willingly agree to them. (It’s like trying to convince those with color vision that red is green.) Yes, because they are impossible, the only way to successfully implement them would be extinction-level genocide—on that, Shafarevich is on point. But if he had focused more on the impossibility itself—the stark mismatch between socialist doctrine and normal human psychobiology—the solutions to other problems would have become clearer.
This brings me back to the problem of religion and the almost irresistible “pull” of socialism on masses of people during times if hysteria and crisis. Shafarevich associates this with an innate “death instinct” (explicitly rejecting Freud’s conception), the dynamics of which he summarizes as follows:
a. The idea of the death of mankind—not the death of specific people but literally the end of the human race—evokes a response in the human psyche. It arouses and attracts people, albeit with differing intensity in different epochs and in different individuals. The scope of influence of this idea causes us to suppose that every individual is affected by it to a greater or lesser degree and that it is a universal trait of the human psyche.
b. This idea is not only manifested in the individual experience of a great number of specific persons, but is also capable of uniting people (in contrast to delirium, for example) i.e., it is a social force. The impulse toward self-destruction may be regarded as an element in the psyche of mankind as a whole.
c. Socialism is one of the aspects of this impulse of mankind toward self-destruction and Nothingness, specifically its manifestation in the sphere of organizing society. The last words of Meslier’s Testament (“…with this nothing I shall end here”) express the “final mystery” of socialism, to use Feuerbach’s favorite expression. (SP, pp. 293-294)
The hint is “albeit with different intensity … and in different individuals.” In his section on socialism as social justice, he quotes some common beliefs about socialism, beliefs that are blind to this subtext of collective annihilation—that socialism is simply “the desire to work in a more equal society,” that its aim is “universal cooperation and coexistence in the spirit of justice and in the absence of privilege.”
Reconciling those views with “death instinct” allure of socialism is what I hope to tease out here. But first, one more quote:
… the striving for self-destruction expressed in socialism not only is not analogous or “equivalent” to other forces acting in history, but is fundamentally distinct from them in character. For example, in contrast to a religious or a national ideology, which openly proclaims its goals, the “death instinct” that is embodied in socialism appears in the guise of religion, reason, social justice, national endeavors or science, and never shows its true face. Apparently its action is the stronger the more directly it is perceived by the subconscious part of the psyche, but only on condition that consciousness remains unaware. (SP, p. 299)
How much of it is a subconscious activation of the death instinct, and how much is simply being duped by the flashy exterior? I think we need to take a multilevel perspective. The reason socialism’s true face must remain hidden is that if it were made explicit, many would reject it out of hand—just as most women would reject the psychopathic suitor if she knew the true face he’d reveal after their wedding day. Shafarevich is a case in point. He can see it, despite the deception, and clearly is not a fan—he’s no dupe.
So among those who are affected, but “to a lesser degree” than others, what else is going on besides a low-level activation of the universal death instinct—a subconscious wish for annihilation in the face of spiritual crisis? To answer that, we need to understand the death instinct in more detail. Enter Dabrowski:
Creative transformations are possible only when the instinct of self-preservation or the life instinct collides consciously with the death instinct. Limned behind the gossamers veiling the inevitable destruction of the totality, there looms the possibility of saving a part in the struggle of the spiritual side with the fleshly, the human with the brutish, the conscious with the unconscious. (Dabrowski, Existential Thoughts and Aphorisms, p. 9)
The instinct of death is a basic force of two directions: externally, it takes the form of aggression, hatred and tendency to inflict pain upon and to kill others, and internally, the form of weakening and annihilation of some inner qualities or suicide.
We mean by the positive instinct of partial death the instinct which is consciously or half-consciously directed toward inner psychic transformation, toward weakening and elimination of some dynamisms, and thus, toward setting up other dynamisms which are of a higher level. (Dabrowski, Dynamics of Concepts, pp. 36-37)
In its negative and even pathological form the death instinct can have certain negative aspects: the desire of nonexistence, hostility and hatred toward oneself without hierarchization of values, without the formation and growth of higher values. This would constitute a one-directional, noncreative, destructive process, frequently ending in suicide. (Dabrowski, Dynamics of Concepts, p. 36)
Clearly Shafarevich is referring to this negative, pathological forms of the death instinct: murder and suicide. But he mostly neglects the positive, and in my opinion, this colors his interpretation of some of its religious manifestations, causing him to conflate some of its positive manifestations with its negative, something like a woman conflating a psychopathic imitator with the real McCoy.
To begin with, we can see how the Bolshevik manifestation of the death instinct caricatures some of its positive forms. Recall Piatakov saying, “Giving up life, shooting oneself through the head, are mere trifles compared with this other manifestation of will [i.e. surrendering all individuality and individual thought to the collective].” That almost sounds like self-sacrifice. Almost. Compare with these example from Dabrowski:
It is understandable that a man who suffers the infirmity of old age, who is aware of his serious, incurable and repulsive illness, who has the feeling that he will not be able to contribute anything positive—may then desire his own death, especially if he possesses a strong feeling of dignity and unwillingness to accept his complete dependence on other people. Being useless, unwanted, unable to participate in life activities of those who have been considered close to him, he will feel “remote,” “on the other side.” He may experience a growing need to accelerate the natural process. This is a form of the unavoidable, global and total departure from life to death. In such circumstances, frequently, the need arises to commit suicide.
At the time of war and occupation of a country by foreign troops, members of the resistance movement sometimes were forced to commit suicide in order to avoid possible betrayal of underground military or organizational secrets due to a possible breakdown caused through tortures applied by the enemy police.
Those acts have to be considered attempts to find a “way out,” attempts founded on former and actual experiences. When the circumstances made any other solution impossible, the decision to commit suicide taken by authentic, morally sensitive people could acquire the strength of an instinct. (Dabrowski, Dynamics of Concepts, pp. 33-34)
A noble suicide can inspire feelings of reverence and awe in others. Compare that to those feelings inspired by the mass murderer who makes of himself his final victim. Such creatures are beneath contempt.
What about its religious manifestations? The partial death instinct is in fact the central tenet of Christianity. Paul wrote:
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:6-7)
So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:4-6)
For Dabrowski, this activation of the partial death instinct is an essential feature of high-level religiosity (specifically, level IV, directed multilevel disintegration):
RELIGION Level IV … Appearance and development of the “partial death instinct,” i.e. the need, in striving for self‑perfection, to destroy all that is undesirable, negative and constitutes an obstacle in development. This can be accomplished through deliberate frustration of one’s basic needs … Turning away from excessive institutionalism and dogmatism of religious organizations. …
RELIGION Level V … Active love resulting from experiences gained in meditation and contemplation. Total readiness for sacrifice for the sake of others and for one’s faith. Union with God is experienced in meditation or in strong intuitive projections. Such experiences generate an inner understanding of God through so‑called infused knowledge. The deepest respect and love of God do not obliterate the awareness of one’s individuality. This means that the sense of affinity and union with God exists together with preservation of distinct and permanent individual essence. (Dabrowski, Multilevelness of Emotional and Instinctive Functions, p. 97)
I think this wider conception of the death instinct better explains the attraction of socialism. Just as the psychopathic Don Juan evokes a para-appropriate reaction in the woman he cons, socialism’s propaganda evokes some deep religious instincts. But just as the relationship with a psychopath inevitably turns to misery and abuse, the experience with socialism inevitably turns to destruction and disillusionment.
Along the theme of socialism as anti-religion, the responses it evokes invite comparison to the Parable of the Sower, in caricature. As a reminder, good earth is fully receptive to the Word (the healed, the Centurion), thorny earth is receptive but other concerns choke out the Word (Herod, the rich man), rocky ground is receptive but falls away from Word as its roots are shallow (the disciples), and “the ground along the way” provides no purchase for the Word (the scribes and Pharisees). In the case of the anti-Word:
Good soil responds “wholeheartedly.” Awareness of the death-instinct beneath the surface is fully conscious. (Lobaczewski calls this “pathological acceptance.”)
Thorny soil responds half-heartedly. Like the prospective Party member who wanted two nights a week for Mozart, other “worldly” concerns make full acceptance impossible.
Rocky soil responds initially, but turns away in disillusionment. Like the “old Communists” in response to the Bolshevik variant, they feel their ideals betrayed.(Lobaczewski calls this a “critically corrective interpretation.”)
Hard soil rejects it completely. They find it morally repugnant from the outset, though may not know exactly why. (“Critical rejection,” for Lobaczewski.)
The “old communists” are like Johnny in the parable with which I began this post. “This isn’t what we signed up for.” While Lobaczewski is sympathetic, taking them at their word that they knew quite well what their own ideology and beliefs were, and thus could see that they were betrayed, there is another side to their disillusion. The death instinct was always lurking beneath their ideals. They just couldn’t see it, glossed it over, or misinterpreted it. Like the projecting lover, they ignored the red flags, saw what they wanted to see, and not the reality which had been there for hundreds, thousands of years. As long as there is “anti-good earth” to perceive the hidden meaning and respond accordingly, it would always have led to such disillusionment. By tying their yoke to any variant of ideological socialism, they doomed themselves from the outset.
And yet, their dreams and ideals were real. That is the reason socialism works: because it hides its reality behind a mask of creative values. As Lobaczewski (who would probably disagree with the “death instinct” explanation for socialism’s success) wrote:
Only a socially dynamic ideology that contains creative elements can nurture and protect an essentially pathological phenomenon from recognition and criticism for so long; only such an ideology can furnish it with the motivational tools of influence internally and for implementing its expansionist goals externally. (PP, pp. 202)
In addition to socialism’s “creative elements” (which I would associate with desires for “a more equal society,” “universal cooperation and coexistence in the spirit of justice and in the absence of privilege”—which need not be limited to ideological socialism, whether pre-Marxist, Marxist, or neo-Marxist), there are some explicitly religious associations baked into it. As Shafarevich points out, many of the developments of chiliastic socialism come right out of Christianity. And it is to this phenomenon that we next turn …
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This is directly relevant to Shafarevich’s treatment of the medieval Cathars and their supposed principle of “universal suicide,” either directly or through refusal to have children. But he bases this on an old Catholic calumny against the Cathars’ alleged practice of endura, in which those recovered from sickness were advised to commit suicide, and young and old were essentially “murdered by suicide” (infanticide, bleeding, swallowing glass, strangulation). In fact, none of this occurred—the actual examples of suicide in the Inquisition’s records are of captured Cathars killing themselves in prison to avoid torture or death by fire. Endura was a method of euthanasia, like that described by Dabrowski, for those of old age, dying, or severely ill, in which they refused food as a final sacrament in order to die pure, and there is very little actual evidence that it was even practiced before the Cathars in southern France were wiped out. Shafarevich’s use of tendentious 19th-century sources for information on the Cathars fatally mars his interpretation of their beliefs and practices.
See Political Ponerology, pp. 108, 189-190, for the three basic interpretations of pathological ideology. See pp. 133-134 for para-appropriate responses.
Here’s what Lobaczewski wrote about them: “Regardless of whatever our evaluation of communist ideology or the parties might be, we are presumably justified in believing that the old communists were quite competent to distinguish what was and what was not in accordance with their ideology and beliefs. Their highly emphatic statements on the subject, quite popular among Poland’s old communist circles, are impressive or even persuasive. (‘A hoard of motherf***ers who climbed up to the feeding trough upon the backs of the working class.’)” (PP, p. 251).
This was one awesome tour de force... Bravo!
One thing that came to mind: it is of course reasonable to criticize the old Enlightenment dogma that "man can be formed and changed", whether by making him more rational or more "communism-compatible". Yes, these things go against man's nature, if we define nature as his spiritual nature. But this move by the Enlightenment/Communist types could be seen as another example where ideologies exploit something true, like the psychopath exploits something true when seducing women: namely that man CAN change, and even overcome his "biological nature" in a sense, à la Dabrowski. It's just that it must happen at an individual level, not collectively, and happen in a very different direction than the ideologues want to push us.
Whew. This one’s gonna take a couple reads for me. Very good stuff here. Looking forward to more of your content.