The Self As Prison

In his review of Charles Simic‘s The Lunatic: Poems and The Life of Images: Selected Prose Phillip Lopate makes note of Simic’s “cultivation of awe,” his “opening himself to chance, that favorite tactic of Surrealists” and makes note of this pronouncement:

Others pray to God; I pray to chance to show me the way out of this prison I call myself.

I have written here about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; one of the possibilities suggested by those difficulties is a terrifying species of realization, of self-discovery, perhaps the most terrifying possibility of all: that we want to change, but find that we cannot, and this knowledge of our inability to do so does not in turn bring about a corresponding diminution of the desire to change. (Hannah Arendt has written of the perennial “wish to escape the human condition;” we may also wish to escape our own personal version of that condition.) We are now locked in a hell of our own making, locked into an eternal ‘repetition compulsion,’ doomed to spend our days like a not-cheerful Sisyphus, one not reconciled to his fate. We wish to change; we find that the combination of this world’s arrangements and workings and our own capacities and inclinations and limitations do not permit such a change; we retreat, defeated time and again in our attempts to transcend ourselves.  We find failure and disgruntlement each time; but rather than accept defeat and ‘go home,’ we, unable to reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs, to the distance now revealed of a bridge too far, persist.

There is nothing noble or heroic about such persistence now; we are not possessed of an amor fati, we do not ‘own it’; we seek to distance ourselves from ourselves, but cannot. We are not reconciled to our being; we are tormented by ourselves, by the bars for this cage we have constructed on our own. Time on the couch does not help; we are urged to construct a narrative of our life that would make sense of the state we find ourselves in, and simultaneously suggest an onward path; we find ourselves unable to write this tale, to take the first step on a new road. And if we do, we find a familiar character populating that myth, we find familiar roadblocks. We are dogged, at every step, by ourselves.

Our ambitions, which almost always outstrip our abilities and capacities, may bring us to this pass; so might the ambition of others. This world’s orderings might suggest routes and journeys that are not for us to undertake. They require us to be not ourselves, and we cannot change.

This a terrifying state of affairs; all too many of us find ourselves in this state of being. Hell is here, on earth. It is not other people; as John Milton’s Satan had noted,

A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
What matter where, if I be still the same

Hell can be, and very often is, just us.

 

The Indifferent ‘Pain Of The World’

In All the Pretty Horses (Vintage International, New York, 1993, pp. 256-257), Cormac McCarthy writes:

He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations. What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits.

The ‘pain of the world’–its irreducible melancholia and absurdity, its indifference to our fortunes and loves and fears–can indeed feel like a malevolent being, a beast of a kind, one that may, if provoked, swat us about with a terrible malignity.  Here, in these impressions, we find archaic traces of an older imagination of ours; the formless fears of the child’s world have congealed into a seemingly solid mass, serving now as foundations for our anxious adult being. It is unsurprising that we have found ways to pay obeisance to this beast through prayer and fervent wishing and day dreaming and fantasy and incantations and magic and potions; we hope to pass unnoticed through its gauntlet, afraid to set astir the slumbering beast and provoke its attentions and wrath. As John Grady Cole, McCarthy’s character, notes, we fear two things especially about this beast: we suspect ourselves to be particularly vulnerable to its depredations, a particularly attractive prey for this predator; we fear we sport a bull’s eye on our backs, a scarlet letter that marks us out as an offender to be dealt with harshly; we fear there may be no limits to its appetites; we sense that lightning might strike not once, not twice, but without no constraint whatsoever; perhaps we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and much more misfortune awaits us around the corner on life’s roads.

In our darkest moments we attribute a malevolent intelligence to this beast, but we know the worst eventuality of all would be a mindless beast, one whose ignorance of us and our capacity to tolerate pain could cause us to plumb unimaginable depths, to experience pain whose qualities defy description. (The fears of these sorts of mental chasms are expressed quite beautifully in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ mournful poem ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.’) McCarthy also seems to suggest the possibility of a presumption of ‘too much’ knowledge on Cole’s part–a la Oedipus, a possible arrogant claim to know the ways and means and methods and mind of the beast; but as McCarthy goes on to note, there is no mind here to be known, no rationale to be assessed, no strategy or tactic to be evaluated; there is merely being and man, caught up in its becoming. It is this irrelevance of man and his capacities and attributes to the working of this beast which is Cole’s deepest fear; it is ours too, the root and ground of the absurdist existentialist vision.

 

Goethe On The ‘Inexhaustible’ Poet

In Marx’s Concept of Man, Erich Fromm credits Goethe as having “developed the idea of man’s productivity into a central point of his philosophical thinking….all decaying cultures are characterized by the tendency for pure subjectivity, while all progressive periods try to grasp the world as it is, by one’s own subjectivity, but not as separate from it.” Fromm then cites Goethe directly on the ‘poet’:

As long as he expresses only these few subjective sentences, he can not yet be called a poet, but as soon as he knows how to appropriate the world for himself, and to express it, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be ever new, while his purely subjective nature has exhausted itself and ceases to have anything to say….Man knows himself only inasmuch as he knows the world; he knows the world only within himself and he is aware of himself only within the world. Each new object truly recognized, opens up a new organ within ourselves.

The ‘purely subjective nature’ of man comes about because of a radical dissociation of man’s place in the world into a subject-object model and relationship; there is the world as object, and here is man, as subject. Man remains divorced, cast asunder; he can only view, and interact with, the world passively. It is finite, bounded, separate. When man sees the world as one of his own making, acting back on him to make him anew, he sees the world as the poet does, as one awaiting completion, because he himself is not complete; this world will, in its ongoing becoming, change him too. That ongoing, and yes, dialectical, relationship means that knowledge ceases to have limits; new depths become visible because there is no bottom here, other than that imposed by a static vision of an inert world awaiting discovery. Small wonder that Blake could see “a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower” and “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” The world becomes an invented one; poets–and all those who encapsulate a ‘poetic vision’ in their being in this world–are inventors.

Goethe will not be studied in philosophy reading lists as a philosopher; we will insist on pigeonholing him as ‘only a poet’ or ‘artist’ or ‘dramatist.’ But he shows us here, quite clearly, that he is a philosopher; moreover, he tells us that philosophers are poets too–when they make us see this world anew. Perhaps by offering us an ‘insight,’ perhaps by using a ‘new language’ or ‘vocabulary.’ Science too, can do the same: its equations and wondrous panoply of unobservable objects show us one way in which it may conceive of the world in an entirely new scheme.

When we step back and observe the scene before us, we realize the triviality of the distinctions and boundaries we seek to impose on our knowledge–which is but another name for all those ways in which we interact with the world and continue to conceive it for ourselves–and see instead, its unity.

John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’: War As Entertaining, Compensatory, Lullaby

Reading Kath Kenny‘s wonderful essay on the Australian poet John Forbes–a personal and literary take on his life and work–reminded me that because I was introduced to Forbes’ poetry by his close friends, I came to feel, despite never having met him in person, that I had acquired some measure of personal contact with him. Her essay reminded me too, of a Forbes poem that is my personal favorite:

LOVE POEM
Spent tracer flecks Baghdad’s
bright video game sky

as I curl up with the war
in lieu of you, whose letter

lets me know my poems show
how unhappy I can be. Perhaps.

But what they don’t show, until
now, is how at ease I can be

with military technology: e.g.
matching their feu d’esprit I classify

the sounds of the Iraqi AA—the
thump of the 85 mil, the throaty

chatter of the quad ZSU 23.
Our precision guided weapons

make the horizon flash & glow
but nothing I can do makes you

want me. Instead I watch the west
do what the west does best

& know, obscurely, as I go to bed
all this is being staged for me.

I am not comfortable offering literary criticism of poetry so I can only point, dimly, in the direction of what it is that makes this poem such a pleasure to read for me.

Forbes skillfully invokes an iconic image of the early nineties–that of the aerial bombardment of Baghdad which kicked off the First Gulf War, and set the stage for the second–to remind us that we were spectators and consumers of that war; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life. Forbes’ invoking of the sounds of war is especially clever–especially the double ‘th’ sound in the sixth stanza. War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Forbes’ killer lines, the ones that haunt me, are the ones that close the poem. They bite, and they bite deep and hard. War is where the west reaches its zenith, its summum bonum, this is where it all comes together. The beautiful machinery of science and technology, the west’s proudest achievement of all, its signature triumphs of rationality, speaking to an unassailable mastery of nature, its domination of world history and its peoples, now pressed into the service of mass killing, putting on a spectacle for its citizens to reassure them that all is well, that old hierarchies remain, that the uppity ‘other’ has a long way to go before catching up with the master. The sounds of war are a lullaby, lulling us to sleep, bidding us turn to dreams while the dirty work carries on outside.

We know this is a show we paid for; we know this is ‘staged’ for us; we own it. All we have to do is buy the popcorn, settle down, and watch. Especially if there is no love to be found elsewhere in this world we have built for ourselves; let us be seduced by this instead.

F. O. Matthiessen On ‘The Value Of The Tragic Writer’

In The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (Oxford University Press, New York, p. 107),  F. O. Matthiessen writes:

The value of the tragic writer has always lain in the uncompromising honesty with which he has cut through appearances to face the real conditions of man’s lot, in his refusal to be deceived by an easy answer, in the unflinching, if agonized, expression of what he takes to be true. The effect of such integrity is not to oppress the reader with a sense of burdens too great to be borne, but to bring him some release.  For, if it is part of the function of every great artist to transform his age, the tragic writer does so not by delivering an abstract realization of life, but by giving to the people who live in the age a full reading of its weakness and horror; yet, concurrently, by revealing some enduring potentiality of good to be embraced with courage and with an ecstatic sense of its transfiguring glory. Through the completeness of his portrayal of the almost insupportable conditions of human existence, he frees his audience from the oppression of fear; and stirring them to new  heart by the presentation of a heroic struggle against odds, he also enables them to conceive anew the means of sustaining and improving their own lives. Only thus can he communicate both ‘the horror’ and ‘the glory.’

These remarks by Matthiessen express quite succinctly, I think, the heart of the best possible response to the charge that the ‘tragic’ or ‘absurdist’ or ‘existential’ attitude leads invariably to nihilism. (It is visible quite clearly, for instance, in Nietzsche’s amor fati, in his ‘joyful pessimism,’ in his rejection of Schopenhauer‘s grim view of the insatiable will: the unflinching life is only possible if imbued with a refusal to look away from the particulars of our lot; it may be seen too, in Sartre‘s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism.’) The ‘heroic struggle against odds,’ the ‘ecstatic sense,’ ‘the transfiguring glory,’ that is present in the tragic writer’s vision of life suggests that there is a romanticism here too, one that will not be satisfied with the easy consolations to be found in systems that explain all, in ‘abstract realizations’ that render everything reasonable and comprehensible.

The tragic writer brings a new mythology to life, placing by dint of artful location, the reader at its center (you may, if you like, cast your mind back to Joseph Campbell at this point); our onward journey now bears the possibility of meaning, because we venture forth into physical and psychic landscapes that await our presence and interaction with them for further definition and clarification. This world is not ready-made, oppressing us with the burden of matters predetermined and foretold; it awaits ‘completion’ at our hands. And that notion of the self as creator, of itself, of the world around it, is the tragic writer’s greatest value; if he or she displaces divinity from the world, it is only to place it within us.

The Most Valuable Philosophical Lesson Of All

I’m often asked–by non-academics, natch–if anything in my philosophical education has been of value to me in the conduct of my lived life. I have found this question hard to answer in the terms my interlocutors demand, largely because is because posed to me in what I call ‘lock-key’ form: is there a lock you have been able to open with a philosophical key? The locks and keys of our lives and education do not quite match up in the way that is imagined here.

Still, if pressed, I will say that one philosophical lesson whose value and import seems to me to be considerable, and one which I have with only limited success tried to integrate in my daily conduct is quite simple. Its basic form can be found in the following lines often attributed to the Stoic, Epictetus:

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
This simple ‘ancient’ wisdom is not to be found in Epictetus–or the Stoics–alone; the Buddha’s sermons include many variants of it, it arguably forms the heart of existentialist philosophy, and further afield, in poetry, Cavafy’s ‘City’ and Milton’s Paradise Lost point to it as well. (You can even find it in Buckaroo Banzai: ‘No matter where you go, there you are.’) It’s lesson is not easy to internalize for the radical agency it grants us is simultaneously empowering and frightening: we make of this life what we will.
Still, having found over the years that I would come across it again and again, its import was undeniable, and I have sought to integrate it into my daily living. This has been a non-trivial task, but I can at least say that I have succeeded to the extent that I can feel its presence acting as a constraint on my inner and outer reactions on the most important of occasions: those times when I am tempted and ready to curse and rail against circumstance or misfortune or another person for having denied me material or psychological comfort and  happiness. It is then that I often find myself pulling up short, and putting a brake on my tongue and mind: is there blame to be assigned here to an externality, or is there rather, an opportunity for me to think and do things differently?
As I noted above, this is not an easy lesson to take to heed. Certainly, many who know me–friends and family–will not think that I have been very successful in my efforts thus far. I remain, like most humans, all too easily inclined to imagine my happiness, my psychological and affective state of being, is at the mercy of the world ‘outside’–events, material objects, people’s actions. But in my more lucid ‘philosophical’ moments, I see through this misapprehension. And I resolve again, to keep that vision close by, at hand, ready to be summoned up when I am tempted again. I think we can ask no more of our philosophy–that it worm its way into our hearts and minds, reminding us again and again, of its relevance for our life.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Mountains Of The Mind

A few years ago, while visiting my brother in India, I browsed through his collection of mountaineering books (some of them purchased by me in the US and sent over to him.) In Robert MacFarlane‘s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, I found the following epigraph:

O the mind, mind has mountains  – Gerard Manley Hopkins c. 1880

It wasn’t the first time I had read Hopkins’ immortal line. And my first reaction to it, and its embedding in the poem in which it features made me question MacFarlane’s deployment of it as an epigraph to his book, and indeed, in its title.

MacFarlane’s book is, as an excellent critical review on Amazon notes, “a series of essays following the development and transitional phases of Western European conceptions of the “mountains” and exploring the mountains.” Man is fascinated by the mountains; bewitched and bewildered, we seek to climb them, hoping to find on their slopes and summits nothing less than our true selves, brought forth and revealed by adversity. Or perhaps mountains will grant us access to the key to this world’s mysteries; visions will be induced in our journeys that will pull back the curtains and reveal what lies beneath the surface and appearance of reality. Mountains have many roles to play in our projects of self-imagination and construction–in MacFarlane’s narrowly conceived Anglocentric sphere. (This last critical point is the primary focus of the review linked above.)

But what is Hopkins’ line doing, serving as an epigraph to such a book? Hopkins’ poem is about melancholia; indeed, it might be one of the most powerful and moving explorations of the mind’s travails. Here is how I read his line: our mind is capable of entertaining thoughts and feelings which contain within them chasms of despair, points at which we stare into a dark abyss, an unfathomable one, with invisible depths. These are our own private hells, glimpses of which we catch when we walk up to the edge and look. The effect on the reader–especially one who has been to the mountains–is dramatic; you are reminded of the frightening heights from which you can gaze down on seemingly endless icy and windswept slopes, the lower reaches of which are shrouded with their own mysterious darkness; and you are reminded too, of the darkest thoughts you have entertained in your most melancholic moments.

In MacFarlane’s book, the fear that mountains evoke in us is a prominent feature of man’s fascination with mountains (this suggests too, the interplay between terror and beauty that Rilke wrote about in the Duino Elegies.) But melancholia does not feature in MacFarlane’s analysis. MacFarlane seems to quote the line as saying that our fascination with mountains stems from the fact that our mind itself contains mountains, that some part of our primeval sense responds to them. This is not what Hopkins was writing about. He uses mountains as an image to convey the depths visible from their heights, as a symbol of how far we may fall in our melancholia. Fear is present for Hopkins but in a wholly different manner; we dread the depths to which we may sink in our ruminations. That is not the kind of fear MacFarlane addresses; it is related only peripherally.