A friend passing through San Francisco last week called to say that he had met a man who earned his living as a consultant in sado-masochism. The consultant offered counseling and instruction to clients interested in those forms of degradation that offered the greatest hope of sexual, psychological and social success. On occasion the consultant also provided the coroner's office with an opinion as to what might have killed an enthusiast who had failed to master one or another of the more advanced techniques.
"This is supposed to be Utopia out here," said the correspondent on the coast, "but I'm having trouble with the definition of the good life."
His report coincided with the news that Bobby Sands had starved himself to death in a Belfast prison and with the announcement that Sen. Harrison Williams had been convicted of taking a bribe from an FBI agent dressed up to look like an Arab. The juxtaposition of events raised the question as to why it has become commonplace to interpret acts of self-destruction as expressions of fulfillment.
The so-called "human potential movements" have been promoting this sophism for years, for as long as there have been people willing to pay the going rates for a spiritual theory that makes getting one's own way synonymous with virtue and inner peace.
Do what you damn well please, says the guru, and know that you will be supplied with a reason, a metaphor or a license to carry a gun. Hardly anybody bothers to point out that the programs of self-fulfillment usually insist upon the loss, not the completion, of the self. The merchants of happiness define the good life as whatever will reduce or obliterate the pain of doubt.
The annual defense budget is headed toward $225 billion, but the citizenry every year spends a much larger sum for weapons with which to combat the onslaught of consciousness. Nobody has compiled statistics for all the businesses contributing to the national effort against the enemy within. The calculation would need to account for the markets in cocaine, pornography, barbiturates, gambling, alcohol, tobacco and religion.
The few available numbers suggest an investment of prodigious size. Merely within the state of Florida the drug trade amounts to $7 billion a year; the various subsidiaries of the sex industry operating only within Times Square in New York contribute about $1 billion a year to the city's commerce. The latter sum is equivalent to the nation's annual expenditure for fresh fruit and vegetables.
The will toward self-annihilation is a familiar human characteristic, older than the Roman Empire and as new as the civil wars in Ireland and Lebanon.
Oscar Wilde, the poet laureate of the id, once described his adventures with lower-class youths as "a feasting with tigers." Even so, and without meaning to belittle the accomplishments of other nations at other times and places, it is probably fair to say that Americans have a particular talent for glossing over their self-destructive impulses with a veneer of inspiring slogans. Bobby Sands at least could hope for a martyr's immortality, "making his contribution," as somebody said in the papers, to 400 years of Irish tragedy. John W. Hinckley Jr. apparently shot President Reagan because he couldn't get a date with a Yale freshman.
Under the rubric of "genius" the New York literary mills present the work of writers who make an occupation of alienation and rage; the art critics proclaim Chris Burden a masterpiece because he had the wit to crucify himself on a Volkswagen. The schools agree to lower their standards of literacy and civility with the excuse that they have extended the hope of the future to a larger audience. The State Department supplies munitions to despots in Central America and the Middle East with the explanation that its policy fulfills the promise of the American economy.
If, as Freud argued, the price paid for the advance of civilization takes the form of guilt, anxiety and unhappiness, then it is no wonder that so many Americans seek escape from these restraints by abandoning themselves to the joys of ancient instincts. Over the last 200 years the United States has made as much of an advance toward the hope of civilization as any other nation in the history of mankind. It follows that the American people would charge themselves a fair price for their labor.
Not only did the Americans have the courage to raise up a government on the volatile principle of freedom, but also they had the temerity to explode an atomic bomb and thus make nonsense of the Day of Judgment. If the American mind can defy the laws of both God and Newton, how great must be the temptation to inflict punishment on itself and return to a pantomine of childhood.