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.

 

Oscar Wilde’s Nietzschean Notes In De Profundis

In ‘Suffering is One Very Long Moment‘–part of a series of essays on prison literature–Max Nelson writes on De Profundis–“a letter written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas)”–and makes note that:

Certain passages in De Profundis do seem to credit prison with strengthening and deepening their author’s nature, but only to the extent that, by subjecting him to intolerable, constant, and thoroughgoing misery, it gave him something against which to muster all his creative energies and all his verbal powers. “The important thing,” he writes himself telling Douglas at one of the letter’s turning points, “the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, or be for the brief remainder of my days one maimed, marred and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear or reluctance.”

There are two Nietzschean notes at play here.

Nelson suggests that for Wilde, prison has become that form of adversity which enables a kind of ‘overcoming’; it is that zone, that space, within which Wilde is able to express himself through ‘his creative energies’ and ‘verbal powers,’ thus enhancing them, and thus too, enabling a kind of self-discovery or transformation on his part. It is within this space–with its provisions for ‘testing’ him–that Wilde might find out whether he is a ‘noble soul’ or a ‘slave.’ (This is a point made in many forms and locations in Nietzsche’s writings; in the The Gay Science for example, Nietzsche had made note of the relationship between pain and profundity, suggesting that ‘great pain…the ultimate liberator of spirit’ could make us ‘more profound.’)

The Wilde quote that Nelson points to seems to invoke Nietzsche’s ‘amor fati‘: Wilde is determined to integrate into himself his experiences, his fate and to not reject them; these experiences are part of his life, they are matters of record, they have left their imprint, one which must be reckoned with and incorporated into his life’s economy. To walk away from them, to fail to acknowledge them, is to merely initiate pathology: perhaps of repressed memories, sublimated into self-destructive behavior, perhaps of futile, life-wasting rage. We must accept all that is our lot, all that is a component of our lives; to do otherwise is to be inauthentic, to be unfaithful to oneself. Wilde must have been aware that anger and bitterness and resentment could continue to imprison him even after he had left Reading Gaol; the very thought of that continued incarceration of his mind, must have struck him as a terrifying burden for the creative person to carry; it would mean the end of his life, or at least, that component of which mattered to Wilde, its productive, artistic one. Perhaps it might also have occurred to Wilde, even as he wrote De Profundis, that his attempts to integrate his life’s experiences to his notion of himself had already proved creatively and artistically fruitful; after all, it was making him write about that attempt.

 

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.

Ghost From The Machine: Once Again, The Dead Return

Matt Osterman‘s Ghost from the Machine (2010)–originally titled and known internationally as Phasma Ex Machina--is touted by its marketing material as a ‘supernatural thriller’. A low-budget indie, it uses a cast made up of genuine amateurs who sometimes look distinctly uncomfortable and self-conscious on camera, and wears its modest production values on its sleeve. The story sounds hokey enough: a young man, an amateur inventor of sorts, tries to bring his dead parents back to life by building an electrical machine that changes the electromagnetic field surrounding it (I think.) The parents, unsurprisingly, do not return from the dead, but other folks do: a widowed, fellow-garage-tinkerer neighbor’s long-dead wife, and a pair of murderous old folk. (The return to life of this latter bunch makes the movie into a ‘horror’ or ‘ghost’ film; bringing back the garage-tinkerer’s wife would only have made it ‘supernatural.’)

For all that PEM manages to often be genuinely thought-provoking. It is so because its treatment of its subject matter invites immediate analogizing–not comparison–with two cinematic classics: Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo and Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Solaris. In Vertigo, Scottie brings back from the ‘dead’–via an uncanny, painstaking reconstruction–the haunting subject of his obsession, Madeleine, and in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the dead–in particular, the scientist Kris Kelvin’s dead wife, Hari–come back to life as physical manifestations of long-held, deeply-felt desires and fantasies. In Phasma Ex Machina, the garage inventor’s wife comes back to life; she is, as Hari is in Solaris, made manifest–imperfectly–as his previously unfulfilled desires.

The fantasy at the heart of these movies is similar: primarily, it is that of beating death at its grimly inevitable game. In each case, the agency that makes it so differs. In Vertigo, Scottie makes the immortalizing happen; he forces his new girlfriend–via a kind of physical mortification of bodily appearance and clothing–into the desired mold. This return is only figurative–since Madeleine has never died, Judy brings her back to life by assuming her form. In Solaris, the reconstructing agency is possessed by the mysterious planet–a strange, inexplicable, natural phenomenon, a force field that populates the world with the desires of its inhabitants. In Phasma Ex Machina a similar force field is present, but it is the result of the inventor’s tinkering; it is his mastery of the subversion of nature that brings about the return of the dead.  (The wishing for the parents’ return to life is of course, an especially primeval fantasy; the premature loss of a parent is a particularly terrible loss, perhaps only exceeded in its poignancy by the loss of a child to the parent. Here, the fantasy is made more affecting because the central character–the ‘inventor’–believes himself to have been responsible for his parent’s death. We might even see the death of the parents as an earlier fantasy having gone terribly wrong; the son might have fantasized about his father’s death, but his successful wishing so brought his mother’s death in its wake. Oedipus never stops screwing things up.)

In each of the three movies noted here, the effect of the reconstruction is deeply flawed: the resurrected dead are only real insofar as they are objects of someone’s subjectivity–in each case, the fantasy is shattered. (As Žižek notes in the The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema–in referring to Solaris–this is a “low form of male fantasy’. Here, woman exists only in the imagination of man, her flaws and defects exist insofar as they are present in the male conception of her, the visible shortcomings of which her ultimately make her return so deeply, terribly, frightening.) In PEM too, the dream becomes a nightmare. While the son might only have wished to bring back his parents to life he does a great deal more–as the unexpected appearances of murderers shows. The world then, becomes just a tad more terrifying. For it is revealed to not be indifferent; instead, the world and the natural order might actually respond to our prayers and entreaties but with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the form and content of our fantasies. Perhaps we might fear the incompletely realized fantasy more than we fear the indifferent world. In one case, we confront a world deaf to our importunations; in the latter we take the chance the world might hear a prayer we had never directed toward it.

One might read some old-fashioned moral instruction into both Vertigo and Phasma Ex Machina–an indictment of the Frankensteinian arrogance and ignorance of the scientist, who blunders on, attempting to remake reality into a form more amenable to him. But I think the movie says more than that.

There is a curiously mixed sensibility–perhaps Nietzschean, perhaps religious–at the heart of Phasma Ex Machina–it preaches to us the virtues of a Stoic acceptance of our fate, of the hand dealt to us, to take on, and not reject, all of our selves, past and present, along with their imperfections and flaws. It suggests an amor fati of sorts: a taking on, an acceptance, of our older lives and actions, of absorbing the consequences of our actions into the lives we choose to live. The young inventor, who with his machine aims to violently disrupt the very fabric of space-time, is urged–by an internal conscience during a moment of internal reckoning–to accept, internalize, and resolve his guilt over his parent’s death, which was not ’caused’ by him, but which invites such an analysis from the grief-stricken. He is urged too, to return to the daily particulars of his life, which include the responsibilities he owes to his younger brother, whose guardian he now is. (PEM gratuitously makes it the case that ceasing his experimentation, destroying his beloved machine, will also have the positive side-effect of saving his younger brother from the murderous attention of the former residents of their house.) This life’s work, its relationship with the living await; attending to the dead is a non-virtuous turning away.

These comparisons with Vertigo and Solaris have only been hinted at here by me; much more, I think, could be said, about the recurring cinematic fantasy of bringing the dead back to life.