an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Dismaying American Impressions

Part 1: California – Journal Extracts '95, '96

Readers would misunderstand the below journal extracts – or any pieces in American Reflections – if they would read them as merely harsh, unsympathetic and critical. Conditions, socially, in the USA, are in far deeper and broader crisis than those people in Russia would suppose who – by choice, default or necessity – are only perhaps somewhat aware and attentive to the realities and life there. Two decades of life, study and observation devoted to trying to understand and help convey a deep understanding of America in human history, has led this author to the dismaying social observations below. American Reflections – for better or for worse, with its strengths and its weaknesses – is the product rather of love and commitment, than hate and rejection. But, still, a “gadfly” must necessarily sting.

It should be added, perhaps, that the continuing focus in American Reflections on the social-cultural problems and conditions in the USA is not excessive, nor idiosyncratic. The social and moral malaise – as shall be additionally “documented” in coming American Reflections by quotes from varied contemporary social leaders in the USA – is now a broadly-acknowledged topic of daily national worry and discussion. The point, however, is not just to recognize and view such problems, but also to try to come to some sort of deeper understanding and creative insight of them, so that other directions in human society may be sought.

6 February 1995, Santa Cruz, California:

“Watching TV with new “Russianized” eyes, I think this country is culturally a mediocre disaster, and a disaster of mediocrity. TV programs, news, commercials are all caricatures of what they should or could be.

It is an act requiring confidence, clarity and courage to decide to move from [physically] comfortable California to Russia to try to live permanently.”

10 February 1995, Santa Cruz, California:

“A close friend of Ukrainian ancestry who traveled [in search of a new home] to western Canada, at the same time as I did to Russia, returns to California [where we coincidentally met again], to report that the Canadian welfare state has lead to spiritual exhaustion: material ease and spiritual malaise. This is very interesting, for it is the ideal “liberal” society as to material life, but it leads to the life of “crickets” of which Goethe wrote in the Prologue to his Faust. I clearly found in Russia – in comparison to his journey and discoveries in Canada – the deeper and more interesting place.” ...

“Friends all notice that I am psychically healthier after living for a year in Russia. Strange to Californians!”...

“I am sitting in a pleasant cafe watching people walking along the main downtown shopping street of Santa Cruz [a popular, coastal town (population ca. 60,000), about 100 km south of San Francisco]. Such a motley stream of people. All dressed indifferently. Hardly any beauty, or depth, or deep worry. It is difficult to think of an appropriate word for this. My Canadian-Ukrainian cohort describes it so: ‘Cafe-culture in California is the final entropic state of Western Civilization; the dead end.’

There is no culture. It is body culture with no intent of redemption. It strolls by, unmingled by higher worries or aspirations...

Women are, it seems, only distinguished by a variant physiology. Perhaps a different “soul” in woman is in fact less and less true? ...

This really does look like dead-end “culture”.

A bad day in Moscow is far more interesting than this. No wonder I could not find deep [well-educated] conversations here [during years of searching]; there are none to be found, except in rarity.

Body culture unrelieved by soulful content is a path to death and decay. No wonder I felt unreal and non-existent here. I wondered time and time again where (if) such people are. Russia is my escape...

I feel more reconciled to the fact that I shall be going back to Russia to live. Hearing of material plenty and spiritual poverty [in prosperous, safe Canada], was a real support for my returning to Russia. This material comfort in the West, I cannot longer endure by itself. All of my talk last night reconciled me more and deeper for my return to Russia.”

22 February 1995, Santa Cruz, California:

“I have developed and deepened my insights of American character here, e.g. women here who “dress up” feminine belong to more conventional families, who carry the past like a social injunction. Even pretty [more independent, free-thinking] women here are dressed in a less cultural, unisex manner. Russian women are less affected by the culture of equality, and do not disdain beauty, femininity or delicacy. People here generally dress casually, as if they had just walked out of the privacy of their own house (where they so dress) out onto the streets. Casual home clothing on the streets. Nothing to hide. Pretending to be more than one is, is contrary to (leveling) equality misunderstood. The inner state of culture is revealed outwardly...

It is easy to see how the culture is often little more than cultural-pandering to the populace. That which is considered “good” is that which satisfies popular prejudice and opinion... Being here in California is like coming down to the earth as a world. Russia is less on the earth...

The USA is not a people or a culture, it is humanity in the USA.”

9 August 1996, Airport, Seattle, Washington:

[Just landed from Moscow, Aeroflot in route to San Francisco] “Watching CNN [Cable News Network, television], I am immediately struck by the unconscious immanence of people, so far down inside of material belief and experience – ‘the nightmare of sleeping humanity’ (Vladimir Solovyov) – that it is like the very air.

A fat-faced businessman [being interviewed on the TV] is so common, and common, that his vacuity is hardly noticed. A black [now “Afro-American”] woman reporter discussing the extra security measures in America after the Atlanta Olympics’ bombing is like a completely immanential creature. Completely befooled by the earthly life...

The physical world is the scene. The physical body is the full-body mask of the play whose plot (mostly forgotten or lost) is the physical life. This direction is so complete that it is unreflective, like some change or condition of the climate. An ice age of business.

Nearby, a young girl chats happily about movie stars and film statistics [Star Wars] with no embarrassment at all as to its vapid emptiness. If the human being is a spirit incarnate, these people forgot it too completely. Drunk of Lethe. Unconscious immanence, from sea to shining sea.”

Santa Cruz, California:

“The contrast between the Moscow I left some ca. 20 hours ago and the place where I now find myself seems so, so far. Admittedly Santa Cruz is a large coastal village compared to Moscow, but the contrast in atmospheres is centuries.

Everyone is dressed [as if] for the beach, or indifferently – including the women.”

10 August 1996, Santa Cruz, California:

“I shall never live here again.

The life of the body is agreed on, and people are natural and unpretentious in their casual dress. Without a deep spiritual idea of man, being “natural” means bodily. For what if any occasion would people “dress up”, especially in our culture?

Mankind stagnating.

Pleasure and the body.

Humanity with no, or forgotten goals.

Beach community as a beach mentality cosmos.

Inner culture is irrelevant.

Uncursed in the land of entropic happiness.

External freedom with no cohesive community meaning, or morals.

Monsters have equal rights too.

Pleasure [in California] is the highest value – casual pleasure that is – cool casual pleasure.

Private religion, or none.

Life is casual enjoyment.

Cultural illiteracy as a popular movement and condition.

The body is the sky.”

11 August 1996, Santa Cruz, California:

“The abandoned, unhesitant externality of the TV morning program’s people [television program hosts] is a clear indication of how omnipresent, presumed and unquestioned is externality in this society. Russia is trying to re-create/reconceive itself; the USA is happy to be its happy, unconscious self. It is not easy to keep “Russian eyes” in a culture that I know so well from the past.

The problems of American culture are so omnipresent, they are the mental condition of so many people, that it is really astonishing.

I am willing to work against this. It is not anti-American, but rather anti-“all-too-human” [Nietzsche].

America has become a disease, but one which can only be engaged in a very profound way...the unreflective massiveness of the American malaise of unculture and mind is amazing.

I can feel and see the spiritual desert conditions here. How did I survive this place for so many years? I thank the God I hope exists, for Russia; with all of its problems, I prefer it to the social life here.”

13 August 1996, Santa Cruz, California:

“I went to a Hollywood movie called “A Time to Kill”. Still with Russian eyes perhaps, this movie, set in the American “South”, with few real “southerners” for actors, showed Hollywood at its common immoral best. The predictable plot, the absolute control of emotions and scenes, etc., etc., was rather strong. The story was predictable and contrived. The real story is so serious that Hollywood could only be “cynical” to have so manipulatively produced it. Real life, the rape of a black girl twelve years of age by two drunk white “rednecks”, and their murder by the girl’s (temporarily insane?) father, and the movie’s central court proceedings, etc., were of no real consequence in the film’s desire to touch people’s emotions and fears in a “sentimental”, unreal, “canned” emotional way. Hollywood showed its immorality by presenting such moral questions in a way of such deliberate manipulation... the deep serious questions of people’s lives were merely incidental to crowd profits. The real questions were blasphemed by this Hollywood film. Disgusting. Something I feel like working against. Crowd psychology.”

More on California – a California guru, hippies and the meeting of East and West, et al – to come.

Part 2: A California Dilettante Guru

Santa Cruz, California; 12 August 1996

I am sitting on the main street of this small coastal town of Central California in my former, now borrowed, 1983 Japanese car – which I had sold last year by long distance phone call from Moscow, to a close German friend living in California, so that I could buy food to eat in Russia. [A sort of common contemporary mixture of science and technology, East and West – quite new in human history.] A regular, mid-day talk program came on the radio – just ending moments ago, and I wanted to write fresh impressions for Russian readers of American Reflections.

It had been more than a year since I had been in California, and two years since I had moved away from there to Russia. Had anything much changed in the culture of California since I had lived there for a decade and a half?

No.

It was a fairly typical topic for California: a California-based “spiritual teacher” had published his latest, new book, and was presenting his ideas. Such people – of whom there are many in California – seem to need to publish a new book every two years or so in order to keep people, their followers and readers, interested and involved – as well as to earn money.

What I described to Russian readers as the “kaleidoscope of cosmologies” in California, in my “Notes on the Lost Cosmos of American Culture” essay [English Supplement, No. 23, June 1996], was, is, and surely for a long time will be (to write a common American expression) “alive and well” in California. If one has studiously listened to such programs weekly for years (as I have), there is very little new or surprising to them – no matter how astonishing and “enlightening” they might seem to, for example, a post-Soviet Russian visitor. Such programs, and “gurus”, all share many of the same characteristics, some of which I shall try to describe.

Psycho-Babble vs. Broad Education

“Psycho-Babble” is an expression in the USA – and especially California – which is used from time to time by somewhat more discriminating, discerning voices. It is a colloquial expression, surely of comparatively recent origin in the intellectual history of mankind, quite probably of American origin, and perhaps only a few decades old, though not without precursors (e.g. German Schwärmerei). It generally means that though someone imagines themselves to speak deeply, intelligently and insightfully about the true inner psychology of man, life and world, they use many pseudo- or semi-psychological words, ideas and theories which do not clearly say or mean much of anything coherent or serious to anyone else. A child is said to “babble”, and anyone who lives in California will regularly, unavoidably, from time to time encounter such “psycho-babble”, in conversations, lectures, radio programs, books, etc.

“Psycho-babble” results from the loss of a common social idea of the cosmos (and man’s place and reality in it), the dearth of well-educated, disciplined intellectual study and a broad collective agreement on excellence, plus cultural pluralism and intellectual “equality”, combined with what could accurately be described as almost a mass American epidemic of cultural illiteracy. This “spiritual teacher” brings to mind Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts to John Adams, in a letter from Monticello dated July 5, 1814:

“But why am I dosing you with these Ante-diluvian topics? Because I am glad to have someone to whom they are familiar, and who will not receive them as if dropped from the moon. Our post-revolutionary youth are born under happier stars than you and I were. They acquire all learning in their mother’s womb, and bring it into the world ready-made. The information of books is no longer necessary; and all knowledge which is not innate, is in contempt, or neglect at least. Every folly must go it’s round; and so, I suppose, must that of self-learning, and self-sufficiency; of rejecting the knowledge acquired in past ages, and starting on the new ground of intuition. When sobered by experience I hope our successors will turn their attention to the advantages of education. I mean education on the broad scale...”

Whether an American “guru” has finished contemporary America’s intellectually-disarrayed university study or not, their “spiritual teachings” are often those of a beginner, when not a dilettante. Such “teachers” come often from middle to upper-middle (socio-economic) class, white households – which were at most only mildly religious, and were rarely centers of educated, cultured, intellectual life. The children of such mildly-religious, agnostic or secular homes, eventually go off to university study (dominated by the mood and mentality of science as it is in this century), where they hear a kind and attitude of information, ideas and knowledge little related to the real questions of life, soul and man. Then they have often somehow or other “discovered” some “spiritual teachings” (or parts thereof), perhaps native American Indian shamanism, Sufism, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism or another, astrology, crystal power, channeling, spiritualism, etc., etc., etc. They are new converts (neophytes), and within some 3-10 years they – in contrast to their personal upbringing, and the surrounding secular culture – come to consider themselves to be “spiritual teachers”. But they have often – from the view of any serious and mature engagement with the depths of spiritual traditions and questions – merely begun to understand some tradition, or perhaps an eclectically-gathered sample of several differing traditions. As they have seldom – conditions being what they are in America’s universities – maturely and substantially studied history, philosophy or religion, or the history of the tradition they have “discovered” (which is new to them), they very often give quite shallow or subjective, unrealistic personal happy American interpretations and versions of the ideas they present. But as liberal pluralism of cosmologies and psychologies is the order of the day, and there is a popular “anti-intellectualism” in post-sixties’ generations of youth in America, vague public presentations are rarely challenged or criticized.

This particular “spiritual teacher” today (age ca. 43), which I just listened to, had typical, contemporary Californian and American intellectual features. His new ideas tended – and this is now very common – to assume that life and world are a function of the individual self. Rather than first in fact seriously understanding the objective realities of man, history and nature through disciplined learning and study – such as Jefferson suggests, such “teachers” often tend to “understand” all of life and world according to their own young, semi-literate, subjective psychologies. Rather than talk knowledgeably of, for example, the actual history of cultures, ideas, societies, national conflicts and social histories, religions, literatures, nature, etc., they tend to make all of life, world, history, et al, into a function of themselves. (This was generally known historically as solipsism.) They sometimes give hopelessly naive and simplistic descriptions of how history, life, society, economics, nature , etc., occur, often speaking vaguely of the “inner” and “outer” worlds in an indistinguishable mixture – as if they had, unnoticed, clouds inside of their skulls. Knowing as little serious of history as they do – and this is a presumable condition amongst people now in California (and much of the USA) – one often hears them speaking, in essence, as if the world and history began with them (and their generation). And even when they speak of some ancient culture and lore, it is often merely to confirm their own personal predilections. Naive. As if history began with them in California in the past decade or three. In a time and place where the “idea of equality” has spread, inappropriately, from the political to the intellectual and (mass) cultural world – “all men[’s opinions, minds, ideas, insights, knowledge, understandings] are created equal” – there is a popular condition of mass, low-level, semi-literate cultural subjectivity present and manifest here, and in which such persons can imagine they are “teachers”. (A clear distinction of “high” and “low” cultures was lost in the USA in the 20th century.)

19th Optina Pustyn vs. 20th Century Santa Cruz

Staretz Ambrosius (1870s)
Staretz Ambrosius (1870s)

One might, for example, contrast the 19th century Russian “spiritual teacher”, the Staretz Ambrosius – to whom such well-educated, creative individuals as Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Solovyov, Tolstoy, Gogol, et al, went for lifeconsolation, guidance and wisdom – to such California “gurus”. Martin Luther (1483–1546) had challenged the Catholic Church saying, amidst other theses, that there was a “priesthood of all believers”, i. e. that anyone could in principle read and interpret the Bible, and be a “priest”. This was a “Protestant” break with the Western institutionalized religious tradition, and eventually led over the centuries to the problem of the increasingly diversified interpretations of the Bible – especially in America. (This idea was touched on in the “Notes on the Lost Cosmos” essay – No. 21, June 1996.) Christianity, and the increasingly multifarious religious, “spiritual” and cultural conditions in the USA, cannot be understood without considering this greater historical process – though most California “gurus” in fact have little or no knowledge of this story, of which they are, therefore, unconscious examples. Many of America’s (one-Book) Christian preachers – and “gurus” of various sorts (from California or elsewhere) – which came (and come) to Russia after perestroika to preach and teach, are a part of this Protestant religious-cultural story – though most unfortunately have no historical knowledge or awareness of this. Ambrosius was a living representative of a centuries-old, long and established tradition, parts of which can be traced back to the 3rd and 4th centuries Anno Domini; many Californian, self-styled “spiritual teachers” rarely often “psycho-babble” little more than their own decade-long desultory “spiritual” studies and personal psychologies, mixed with American culture’s tendency towards ahistoria, cultural illiteracy, ideas and goals of material and psychological comfort, phrases and ideas from Thomas Jefferson poorly understood, et al. (If the Hesychast tradition is too tradition-bound and formalized, California, contrariwise, has very little tradition or form whatsoever.)

This particular popular “guru” in Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) had created his own 12-step psychological system for a person to come to be at peace and happiness with the world. And, truly, listening to him one would have thought there had not been five millennium of prior human history, lores, great spirits, cultures, literatures and civilizations before him, and his mild-mannered, American psychological counseling. He spoke – and this is very characteristic – about the negative and painful in life, world and self, as if there were some unfortunate, minor, but probably (for most people) unavoidable nuisance. Strange though it is after this continuingly-bloody century – he was an example of such people (of whom there are many) who only seem reluctantly, or very simplistically, to admit the presence and reality of suffering, death, war and evil into their own psychological and cosmological systems. The world and life are viewed sub specie california.

The California Spiritual Smile

A typical California “spiritual” magazine (showing hundreds of people advertising their various “teachings” – be they physiological, psychological, philosophical, etc.), virtually always shows these “teachers” with a smiling photo. A deep, serious, stern and intense photo of a “spiritual teacher” would (with only very rare exceptions) be completely out of place in California, where an expression, “follow your bliss” (which surpasses the Occidental Jefferson’s misunderstood “pursuit of happiness”, with Oriental Hindu “bliss”), is present from time to time amidst the “spiritual community”. Smiling, happy, contended human selves is their presumed idea of the true condition (“unfallen”?) of the human being in this life and world, on the earth in our time – and advertisements display this happy ideal regularly, of “spiritual teachers” in California and the USA, who can tell (and sell) their hundreds and thousands of personal ways to “be happy”, “realize your true divine self’, “achieve enlightenment”, etc., etc., etc. Distant to experience, knowledge and sense as, for 20th century examples, the realities (and “lessons”) of the Nazi and Stalinist times (or the other 250 + “low-intensity wars” in the world since World War II) seem to be to many of California’s “spiritual teachers” – in the past 3-4 decades one has often periodically there heard that a “new age” of world peace, harmony, light, love, Aquarius, etc., is about to break out into human history (beginning with them in California of course).

A Great Misfortune

This “spiritual teacher” said little in the any serious depth, and very little which showed any substantial study of mankind’s spiritual history – or deeply cultured, educated engagement with the great questions of human existence and history. And in this way he was very typical of conditions in California, there are many, many “teachers”, “gurus” like him.

In this author’s view, this is a symptom of a great misfortune in the spiritual and intellectual history of the 20th century. Anyone who knows the history of America after the Second World War, cannot but wonder if California’s “spiritual culture” might not have been more serious, substantial and mature – there is certainly the cultural, social, and intellectual freedom for such human development. Jefferson would have rejected, as unworthy of man and society, much of the undisciplined “teachings” present in California in the last four decades of the 20th century, as the “...folly...of self-learning, and self-sufficiency, of rejecting the knowledge acquired in past ages, and starting on the new ground of intuition”. And it was education which Jefferson saw – “education of a broad scale” which was to help bring about the mature individual and the educated society.

In historical fact, many of such “spiritual teachers” from California have also traveled the world with their “teachings” – including to Russia. It is unfortunate that in the great social, egalitarian “freedom” in California, USA, many did not realize that they were dilettante gurus babbling.


First published in English, #39, October 1996, p. 4; #42, November 1996, p. 14.