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The Human Evasion by Celia Green

Chapter 4 : The Society of the Sane

Society begins to appear much less unreasonable when one realizes its true function. It is there to help everyone to keep their minds off reality. This follows automatically from the fact that it is an association of sane people, and it has already been shown that sanity arises from the continual insertion of 'other people' into any space into which a metaphysical problem might intrude.

It is therefore quite irrelevant to criticize society as though it were there for some other purpose -- to keep everyone alive and well-fed in an efficient manner, say. Some degree of inefficiency is essential to create interesting opportunities for emotional reaction. (Of course, criticizing society, though irrelevant, is undeniably of value as an emotional distraction for sane people.)

Incidentally, it should be noticed that 'keeping everyone alive and well-fed' is the highest social aim which the sane mind can accept without reservation or discomfort. This is because everyone is capable of eating -- and so are animals and plants -- so this qualifies magnificently as a 'real' piece of 'real life'. There are other reasons in its favour as well, of course, such as the fact that well-fed people do not usually become more single-minded, purposeful, or interested in metaphysics.

It has been seen that the object of a sane upbringing is increasingly to direct all emotion towards objects which involve other people. Now basically the situation of being finite is an infinitely frustrating one, which would be expected to arouse sensations of desperation and aggression -- as indeed it may sometimes be seen to do in very young children. I am aware that I must be careful, in using the word aggression, to state that I do not mean aggression directed towards people. What I mean is an impersonal drive directed against reality -- it is difficult to give examples but it may be presumed that geniuses who are at all worthy of the name preserve a small degree of this.

However, since all emotion must be directed towards people, it is obvious that the only form of aggression which a sane person can understand is aggression against people, which is probably better described as sadism or cruelty.

Now it is obvious that the open expression of cruelty towards other people would have a destructive effect upon society, apart from being unprofitable to the human evasion in other ways. So the usual way in which aggression is displaced onto other people is in the form of a desire that they should be limited. This, after all, is very logical. If the true source of your anger is that you are limited yourself, and you wish to displace this anger onto some other person, what could be more natural than that you should wish them to be limited as well.

This desire is usually expressed in the form of a desire for social justice, in one form or another. ('In this life you have to learn that you can't have it all your own way.' 'Well he can't expect to be treated as an exception for ever.' 'It's time he learnt to accept his limitations.' 'Don't you think you should try to think more what other people want? We all have to do things we don't like.' 'Why should they have all the advantages.')

This means that society is not only the chief source of compensation to a sane person, but his chief instrument of revenge against other people. It is useless to point out that there is no need to revenge himself upon them. If he were ever to admit that they were not responsible for his finite predicament, he would have to direct his hatred against the finite predicament itself, and this would be frustrating. It is this frustration that the human evasion exists to evade.

Any attempt to do something involves the possibility of failure and may remind you of reality. For this reason the sane society discriminates against purposeful action in favour of pleasure-seeking action. The only purposes readily recognized as legitimate by the sane mind are those necessitated by the pursuit of pleasure. E.g. pleasure seeking cannot efficiently be carried on unless the individual is kept alive and moderately healthy. Therefore his physical needs are regarded as important and ambulances are provided with noisy bells. There is no corresponding necessity that he should fill, say, his intellectual potentialities. In fact the attempt to do so is likely to appear unduly purposeful.

It is obvious in any number of ways that a sense of purpose repels rather than attracts assistance. You have only to consider the immediate sympathy that would be aroused in a sane mind by the complaint of some child that it was being driven to work at things far too difficult for its capacities, compared with the distrust and reserve with which it would view complaints by the child that it was not being allowed to work hard enough.

To the sane mind, even aggression against people is infinitely better than aggression against infinity. And it is the chief defect of sane society that it is boring. It is so boring that even sane people notice it. And so, from time to time, there is a war. This is intended to divert people's minds before they become so bored that they take to some impersonal kind of aggressive activity -- such as research, or asceticism, or inspiration, or something discreditable of that kind.

In wartime, rather more purposeful activity than usual is permissible. Even sane people relax their normal beliefs that nothing matters very much, and some time next week is soon enough for anything. This is regarded as justified because the war is always about something connected with other people, and may be regarded as an assertion of the belief that the thing that matters most is politics.

And yet it might seem that war was going rather far. It does contain a very considerable risk of contact with reality. It is difficult to pretend that people never die, or that they only die in soothing situations with up-to-date medical care and loving relatives to keep their minds occupied with family news. War is full of reminders that things happen, and that space and time are real, and that before the bomb blows up is not the same as after, and that there are risks and uncertainty.

How then can a sane society run the risks of allowing its population to have experiences of this kind, even occasionally? I think if you ask this question it is simply because you do not appreciate the robustness of sanity. If you shut people up in a prison camp, and torture them for a few years, they will not come out saying: 'I am a finite animal in existence and it is beyond endurance. How can I go on living in a body that can be tormented in these ways? I demand that human society stops all it is doing and starts attacking finiteness in every conceivable way....'

Instead, they will come out saying: 'It is terrible that other people should let wars happen, in which it is possible to be so degraded and reminded of one's limitations. It shouldn't happen; it is contrary to human rights; we are appalled at the evil in the heart of man. Meanwhile we demand reparation from society -- employment, and housing, and disablement allowances...'

Society, they say, exists to safeguard the rights of the individual. If this is so, the primary right of a human being is evidently to live unrealistically.

It has been pointed out that by the time a person is fully mature he will not, in normal circumstances, be made aware of his finiteness except in comparisons with other people.

It is not possible to ensure this absolutely. But it is possible to limit the loopholes to those of physical accident, illness and death. Human beings regard it as a sacred duty to be particularly untruthful about these things -- particularly to the afflicted person and to any young person who may be around. For example, the following account of the death of Madame Curie may well seem rather touching to a sane person.

Then began the harrowing struggle which goes by the name of 'an easy death' - in which the body which refuses to perish asserts itself in wild determination. Eve at her mother's side was engaged in another struggle; in the brain of Mme Curie, still very lucid, the great idea of death had not penetrated. The miracle must be preserved, to save Marie from an immense pain that could not be appeased by resignation. Above all, the physical suffering had to be attenuated; the body reassured at the same time as the soul. No difficult treatments, no tardy blood transfusions, impressive and useless. No family reunion hastily called at the bedside of a woman who, seeing her relatives assembled, would be suddenly struck to the heart with an atrocious certainty.

I shall always cherish the names of those who helped my mother in those days of horror. Dr. Toben, director of the sanatorium, and Dr. Pierre Lowsy brought Marie all their knowledge. The life of the sanatorium seemed suspended, stricken with immobility by the dreadful fact: Mme Curie was about to die. The house was all respect, silence and fervor. The two doctors alternated in Marie's room. They supported and solaced her. They also took care of Eve, helped her to struggle and to tell lies, and, even without her asking them, they promised to lull Marie's last sufferings by soporifics and injections.

On the morning of July third, for the last time Mme Curie could read the thermometer held in her shaking hand and distinguish the fall in fever which always precedes the end. She smiled with joy. And as Eve assured her that this was the sign of her cure, and that she was going to be well now, she said, looking at the open window, turning hopefully towards the sun and the motionless mountains: 'It wasn't the medicines that made me better. It was the pure air, the altitude...'[1]

It may be remarked that although the vulnerability of the human body makes it possible even for a fully-matured human being to be reminded of his limitations, no power on earth can remind him of the transcendent, in any shape or form. His reactions to pain, danger and death are limited to fear, depression, anxiety and commonsense. They do not include liberation, elation, or an interest in infinity. That is to say, the impact of reality has been rendered entirely negative.

In order effectively to distract people from reality, society has to provide them with pseudo-purposes, guaranteed purposeless. (Or, alternatively, with pseudo-frustrations, guaranteed permanent.) There are two main kinds of pseudo-purpose or -frustration; they are known as 'earning a living' and 'bringing up a family'. They both provide a person with a cast-iron alibi for not doing anything he wants with his life. (He does not, of course, want to be free to do what he wants, so this is all right.)

Sane people regard an apparently purposeful activity as disinfected by numbers -- i.e. if a sufficiently large number of people is involved, they feel sure that the outcome will be harmless to sanity, no matter how frenzied the labours may seem to be. The most large-scale examples are war and politics.

Into these activities, people allow themselves to enter with almost single-minded devotion.

Both war and politics have played a particularly helpful part in retarding the march of progress. In fact, the history of the human race is only comprehensible as the record of a species trying not to gain control of its environment.

[1] Eve Curie, Madame Curie, Garden City Publishing Co. Inc.,
    1900, pp397-398.
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