Modernity and Indigestion

From the notebook of Friedrich Nietzsche, autumn 1887:

Modernity‘, using the metaphor of feeding and digestion.

Sensibility unutterably more excitable ( – the increase in excitability dressed in moralistic finery as the increase of compassion – ), the abundance of disparate impressions greater than ever before – the cosmopolitanism of dishes, of literatures, newspapers, forms, tastes, even landscapes, etc.

The tempo of this influx is prestissimo [extremely fast]; the impressions efface each other; one instinctively resists taking something in, taking something deeply, ‘digesting’ something.  This results in a weakening of the digestive power.  A kind of adaptation to this overload of impressions occurs: man forgets how to act and now only re-acts to stimuli from outside.  He spends his force partly in appropriation, partly in defense, partly in responding.

Nietzsche was the diagnostician of modernity par excellence, and here he foresees the condition of 21st century humanity with remarkable prescience.  To better understand the metaphor he employs, we can refer to the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff taught that man takes in three different types of ‘food’, ranging from gross to subtle.  The grossest form is food and water, taken in through the mouth.  A subtler form of ‘food’ is air, taken in through the nose.  The most subtle form of ‘food’ is sensory impressions, taken in through the senses.  In each case, the organism must ‘digest’ what is taken in, such that it can separate what it can use from what it cannot, transmute the usable into energy, and excrete the unusable.  In each case, if this process is hindered in some way, the organism will become ill.  The basic forms of illness are: constipation, diarrhea, malabsorption, or poisoning.

Applying this understanding to an examination of the modern world, we can see that all three forms of ‘food’ have become polluted in the present age.  Our water supplies are increasingly scarce and impure.  Our food is increasingly tainted with chemicals and preservatives, and traditional wisdom on the subtle properties of foods is lost not only to modern people in general, but even to modern doctors, most of whom are scandalously ignorant of even basic nutritional knowledge.  Our air is likewise polluted by factories, automobiles, and other industrial by-products.

While much has been written of the pollution of the earth, water, and air, not much attention has been given to the pollution of space – the space of our minds – by a bombardment of mostly useless information and stimuli.  Consider that two hundred years ago, there was no television, no computers, no radio, and no electricity; and this is how ALL of our ancestors lived until the very recent development of these technologies, which have increased the quantity but lowered the quality of the sensory impressions we take in. So many sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes … most of it just so much junk food.

We can also include the faculty of the mind which processes ideas and concepts, and consider the sheer enormity of garbage it must wade through in search of real knowledge and wisdom.  On the one hand, once-secret teachings of Tradition are now available free to all on the internet, in the library and in bookstores.  On the other hand, these teachings are surrounded by propaganda, errors, distractions, and outright lies, all claiming equal validity.  Thus, the seeker looks for gold not amidst dirt and dust, but amidst countless pieces of iron pyrite (fool’s gold) shining deceptively.

Because of these radical changes brought about by modernity, human beings suffer an epidemic of digestive ailments.  On the grossest level, we suffer from obesity, ulcers, IBS, and a plague of other diseases.  On a subtler level, there is asthma, emphysema, and lung cancer.  And on the still subtler level, there is the zombie-like confused stupor of a populace so numbed by meaningless bits of sense data that it can no longer think clearly even about commonplace things, let alone contemplate finer and higher aspects of existence.  And as Nietzsche notes, it can no longer act, but only re-act, because it has lost touch with the deep center from which true action originates.

To begin to combat this sorry state of affairs, to ‘revolt against the modern world,’ one can begin by regulating one’s intake of food, on all three levels, and thereby strengthening one’s digestive ability, by learning to distinguish between that which is nourishing and that which is harmful and indigestible. One can pay attention to quality: of food and water, of air, and of information and sensation.

What, then, is the difference between the modern world and the world of Tradition?  In the world of Tradition, the food was much better.

21 thoughts on “Modernity and Indigestion

  1. Pingback: Food « .·. Ristorante Mystica .·.

  2. So much for the benefits of the ‘Mediterranean Diet.’

  3. above: Ostrogoths to be precise….they were all goths anyway…

  4. @James
    Regarding height and nutrition, I remember distinctly a part in the life of Belisarius (Lord Mahon), when the Belisarius’ soldiers are marching through Rome or Ravenna (I cannot remember which), the Visigoths are amazed at the small stature of the (Greco-Roman) army, and cannot believe that they had been defeated by “dwarfs” as they called them…
    I guess these people were tall due to their meat and milk based diet….

  5. “I am coming to think, in a casual, amateurish way, that China may have the closest to the Primordial Tradition, since it seems to operate with a minimum of irrational taboos…”
    But then they eat everything and spare nothing! I mean if you go there and see for yourself…in our regions the Mongolian peoples are known for eating everything…In in this respect, the Chinese might outlive all others by virtue of their eating habits! Upper caste Hindus have been finicky traditionally about food, but food is important, and perhaps the most important, my grandparent’s generation would only eat food only if it had been handled by Brahmins, they would refuse to eat food cooked by others, now that is extreme! But if you consider that different peoples have different standards of cleanliness then perhaps that is understandable.
    It is true that all castes have their own pride. Brahmins are often poor and looked down upon by the merchant caste who take pride in their money, but then the Brahmins look down upon them as having no culture or education traditionally despite their money and so on…Now everyone has access to education, and often the merchant’s children will go to the best schools by virtue of having money. So it is all changing in modern times. This is what Westerners fail to understand, caste had nothing to do with money, but had something to do with blood and carrying a certain civilizational ethos.
    Satyajit Ray’s (the great Bengali film maker) Apu triology is about impoverished Bengali Brahmins. You see how Hindu culture survived and how people maintained their dignity and did not become completely savage despite the destruction in Bengal over the centuries–despite the extreme poverty, the family maintains its dignity, it is worth seeing this movie if you want to understand how something remained in India despite everything…
    However, I do think Brahmins, however humble or poor they might be, still stress cleanliness (in food and drink and lifestyle) and are interested in learning as that has been their traditional pursuit for centuries. I am speaking of those that are correctly brought up…

    Also in the Middle Eastern religion, I see little respect for animals and wildlife…

  6. @James
    @Here is the old Persian reference to meat eating as “foul” and who eats meat as “evil-mouthed”!
    Interesting that the Persian equivalent of Brahman was Brazman…It is a shame that most of their texts were destroyed, so we know little of their religion from what we have left…

  7. @James
    Also apart from the cruel way in which their animals are slaughtered, I could never understand the ‘kosher” concept. Why is it wrong to mix meat and dairy? Could it be that in the desert, this would lead to indigestionn? Goat tastes good in yoghurt marinade! For example, many HIndu customs make sense in proper context. Now you might not want to take off shoes before entering temples where the surroundings are not clean, where there is possibility of getting worms!, but taking off shoes, in general, is a mark of respect, as your shoes are not clean, so it is understandable you take them off in a temple and this is why the custom arose…
    Also in modern times, people are reducing intake of red meat, eating more vegetables, even practicing yoga (although it is more of gymnastics here), emphasizing purity and simplicity in food and diet, these are traditional ideas in our religion…

  8. “customs” not “customos” , likes meat, not like meat, permits, not permit and so on…I somehow fail to edit properly before pressing submit…sorry for that…

  9. @James
    In Hindu festivals, the goat is slaughtered quickly in one shot. The animal dies in a flash. This is different from the halal way in which the blood is drained from the animal as it dies slowly. I am told that as the blood drains from the goat, the goat says Baaa dying in pain the animal is supposed to think of god! This strikes me as enormously cruel and irrational!
    In our festivals, you offer thanks to the goddess for the slaughtered animal and eat all of the meat, so there is nothing more cruel in this than consuming meat from a supermarket (I am told of cruelty in slaughterhouses where animals are killed in mass) and wasting half of it as if it were vegetables! When you slaughter an animal and take part in cleaning it, you understand what you are eating…whereas the meat in a supermarket is impersonal, you do not know who handled the meat, and what is done to it, the animal is killed in mass in an impersonal way…
    In one festival, parts of the slaughtered meat is thrown in the air (parts like the lungs say that people do not eat) and the eagles from high up above the temples, would swoop down and grab it…this is a lot of fun to watch…
    Also our region is diverse, it is a subcontinent, so the customos in different regions vary.
    Hindus once upon a time were beef eaters. For example, one verse in the Rig Veda has Yajnavalkhya say something to the effect: Others do not eat it, but I do (eat beef). When they stopped eating beef is an interesting question. Perhaps there is some spiritual development in a gradual aversion to eating meat, even in the Gathas of the Zoroastrians are are some passages in which eating meat is considered unclean and indulgent. I suppose it derives from respect for living beings. In certain cold parts, however, one could not do without meat although one could restrict its intake, and Brahmins in places like Kashmir and other northern parts eat meat, although the meat intake is restricted to goat, lamb, fish, sometimes chicken (which is considered unclean by the older generation), and people do not eat pork as it is considered unclean. This is why it does not make sense for Europeans to be vegetarians although they can reduce intake of meat; it is cold where they live and people need it.
    In the south where it is hot and humid, the upper castes have an aversion to eating meat and are generally strict vegetarians, they can be so as the climate permit it. My husband like meat and does not like vegetarian food!
    But even in the cold northern parts, as people grow older, they generally develop an aversion and reluctance to meat eating for spiritual and religious purposes, such as I have noticed with my in laws. I guess it is cultural. The younger generation, however, living abroad often eat everything these days, even beef, although they are reluctant to cook it at home.
    Also among the upper castes importance was traditionally placed on cleanliness in food and in general. For example, traditionally, you were not allowed to eat before bathing and so on. So even if the roads and outside can be filthy due to lack of civic sense (as the public sector is dysfunctional) the dwellings themselves of upper castes will be spotless as cleanliness is traditionally important.
    However, these days, everything is adulterated with chemicals and what not, as the government does not do much to control these things like here, as the public sector is dysfunctional. So it is difficult to eat pure foods, even though our tradition emphasized purity and simplicity in eating and drinking. Also the nature of urban life in our parts makes it difficult to follow some traditional teachings…
    But then, many of the great Europeans such as Michaelangelo were vegetarians. I guess if one eats meat in moderation for necessity, there is nothing wrong with it. Vegetarianism is something done out of inward choice and cannot be forced I think…

  10. I think my appreciation of this angle on China comes from A. Watts, who may have gotten it from Lin Yu Tang. Greg Johnson just published an excellent review of Watts’ book Does it Matter, which is all about this kind of Tao-YuTang “spiritual materialsim.” For example,

    “One of Watts’ most surprising and refreshing positions is his critique of vegetarianism. For Watts, vegetarianism is simply an attempt to evade the fact that life feeds on life, that the universe is a vast web of creation and destruction. A vegetarian is just a person who spares his own feelings by killing creatures that can’t scream. Vegetarianism is an attempt to remove man from nature, rather than to embrace nature and plunge into it. As such, vegetarianism can be part of an ascetic retreat from life. But Watts will have none of that.” []

  11. Kadambari,

    Is meat restricted or forbidden to the upper caste? In the West one has the impression of it being forbidden, is this some Victorian notion? Danielou talks about each caste being brought up to enjoy its own ways and laugh at the others, rather than the British-educated pseudo-Brahmins like Nehru and Gandhi claiming the upper castes were ‘envied’ by the ‘downtrodden;’ he says that the cab driver laughs at the Brahmin, who must spend his days memorizing boring sutras and can’t have a steak; his point being that most Indians were not vegetarian [at least only by poverty], the number of Brahmins being small, but you call it merely ‘restricted.’

    I am coming to think, in a casual, amateurish way, that China may have the closest to the Primordial Tradition, since it seems to operate with a minimum of irrational taboos, which I would ascribe to later, specifically ‘religious’ developments. They seem to rejoice in pork, for example, as opposed to the Semetic obsessions with it, and drink as well. I remember reading Chuang Tzu and wondering at the frequent use of butchers and drunks as examples of ‘how to live the Tao.’ The land of the fat Buddhas. I suppose in the alchemical traditions food drink and sex are ‘regulated’ in various ways, but only to gain a greater end, which, in fact, is personal immortality, rather than some nebulous ‘salvation’ or ‘glorifying God.’

  12. I have a vague recollection of hearing someone ‘defending’ the kosher laws against Peter Singer, saying that far from being cruel, they were ‘implicitly’ vegetarian, since it made meat expensive and even hard to find, since it basically had to be slaughtered in Jerusalem, where the proper schokets could be found. Hence, going down to Jerusalem for the Passover feast, etc. The ‘temple’ was essentially Israel’s slaughterhouse. This not only served to feed the priests, but centralized the cult in Jerusalem, making the Samaritans ‘unclean.’ Of course, this could all be another just-so story to explain irrational taboos.

  13. “Feeding the beautiful eagles in our temples (located at heights) with the meat during certain festivals…’
    What I mean is that the ancient world also knew of excesses, for example, in the declining days of the Roman empire when the Roman ruling classes just could not get enough of new and exotic stimuli to whet their jaded senses….Sometime going to “whole foods” (the irony!) I am reminded of such Roman excesses….

  14. “In the world of Tradition, the food was much better.”

    Funny generalization!
    take a look at what the Romans ate–the upper classes could often take part in excesses as all peoples in this respect– the satire of Trimalchio’s feast in the Satyricon—
    Why do some peoples eat everything? The east asians, for example, do not spare dogs and insects, and Japanese even can eat raw fish? Even Westerners eat everything, though on on a scale smaller than East Asians, not sparing snails and frogs.
    What is true is the more refined spiritually a culture, the less emphasis on eating and drinking, i.e. belly and lower belly, amongst the upper classes. Many references even in the Zoroastrian Gathas as to how meat eating is “smelly”, although the Persians were mostly meat eaters.
    Meat eating among upper caste hindus is restricted to goat, lamb and chicken and fish, and the stricter ones try to be vegetarian out of respect for life, not for lifestyle reasons…
    The Romans in general also frowned upon excessive meat eating…
    Best to see the animal cut and cleaned, so one sees what one is eating. Annoying people who are against animal sacrifice in festivals in our part of the world do not understand the meat is not wasted, as opposed to the meat in the supermarket here which is treated as vegetable (just because one does not see the animal killed and cleaned does not make it somehow better and more humane than sacrificing an animal at a religious feast and eating all of it…)
    And the best part of these sacrifices I recall was feeing the beatiful eagles in our temples with the meat during certain festivals….

  15. Indeed, GF, not to sound all Oscar Wildish, but I have often found myself able to abandon something, like piles of books or other information, only when it just became too much, and the appeal of simplicity arose. It may be easier to discard a huge pile, which looks like clutter, rather than choose among 5 or 6 books, which look like old friends.

  16. To put it in yet another way: I have endless information here at my beck and call, and yet my life does not become any more meaningful because of it. The more information available, the more obvious this becomes.

  17. Information has, by sheer excess, become helpful on the path to self-mastery. There’s so damn much of it now that it has no appeal, and its easy to see the futility of trying to comprehend it all, even on a single topic; better to concentrate on improving one’s own mental and moral clarity. In other words, the glut of information brings home the necessity of ‘higher positivism’ or ‘Traditional phenomenology’. Such has been my experience, at least.

  18. Not to be completely inane; last night, saw a new Gordon Ramsey show; here instead of visiting crap places, two restaurants compete to be chosen the best [why any businessman would submit to this I don’t know]. So the two joints: one a ‘traditional’ Italian place, [but ‘high class, no really, not a cheap clip joint for picking up tarts — that was right out, I deny that completely’ as Michael Palin might say], simple ingredients, simple methods; the other some ‘scientific gastronomy’ joint from the provinces, venison freeze dried in plastic and cooked “sur vide” or in liquid nitrogen. Most of the later gets sent back [“Is it supposed to be raw like that?”] but Ramsey just tells them the problem is, they need to educate the punters more. Somehow the new guys win, and I turn off the set with an obscenity. Somehow this seems relevant.

  19. Good post. I’m a traditional food and nutrition enthusiast – just finished eating this evening’s dinner which included brown rice that I had properly soaked overnight. I also agree that information overload is harmful.

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