Gustave Le Bon remarks in his study of The Crowd (1895) that when the suggestible individual loses himself in the irrational multitude, he enters into a mental phase “hovering on the borderland of unconsciousness” which is characterized by “violence of feeling.” It is no wonder that the crowd’s appetite should run to the insipid and at the same time to the nasty. Regimes want this result, as it increases the malleability of the masses, immobilizing them temporarily in simple satiety, while convincing them of a specious independence. Le Bon writes that, “the improbable does not exist for the crowd,” which falsely regards itself as a superhuman entity. Nicolas Berdyaev, the Russian religious thinker, agrees with Le Bon. In Freedom and the Spirit (1927), Berdyaev writes of the pseudo-mysticism typical of political movements in an age of crassness and a purely materialist worldview: “There are orgiastic types of mysticism in which the spirit is swallowed up by the ‘psychical’ or corporeal elements, and remains wedded to them.” According to Berdyaev, “true mysticism frees us from the sense of oppression which arises from everything which is alien to us, and imposed, as it were, from without.” In modernity, real transcendence is vanishingly rare while false transcendence is a common – one might say the commonest – occurrence, existing in many only slightly varied and equally jejune forms.
Berdyaev, who before he became a theologian began as an aesthetician, frequently comments on the relation of art to transcendence and to the mystic experience. In The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), Berdyaev turns his attention briefly to music, noting that, like everything else in modernity, music has become banal and purely functional, giving what he calls “illusory transport to another world,” while being in subservience to the empirical order. It is the case nevertheless that “in the spirit of music there is prophecy of incarnate beauty yet to be.” Berdyaev intuits, for example, that “Beethoven was a prophet”; by contrast Alexander Scriabin, who made himself out to be a vates and a mystagogue, succeeds only in articulating “a sense of foreboding and unconquered chaos.” Berdyaev likes to write in propositions: “The creative act of the artist is essentially the non-submission to this world and its distortions”; and “the creative act is a daring upsurge past the limitations of this world into the world of beauty.” Because “the artist believes that beauty is more real than the distortion of the world,” it follows that “there can be no art without an impulse to beauty.” In the Twentieth-Century phase of modernity, the situation has become extremely acute. In this phase, “the mechanical civilization… reducing everything to one level, depersonalizing man and depriving him of value” has led to a condition of “pseudo-being, illusory being, being turned inside out.”
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