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.


Social Media From Beyond the Grave

Charles Simic describes an ingenious and profitable aspiration for immortality:

[The] poet Mark Strand…told me excitedly one day that he had invented a new kind of gravestone that….would include…a slot where a coin could be inserted, that would activate a tape machine built into it, and play the deceased’s favorite songs, jokes…whatever else they find worthy of preserving for posterity. Visitors to the cemetery would insert as many coins as required to play the recording…and the accumulated earnings would be divided equally between the keepers of the cemetery and the family of the deceased.

[T]is invention… would transform these notoriously gloomy and desolate places by attracting big crowds…complete strangers seeking entertainment and the pearls of wisdom and musical selections of hundreds and hundreds of unknown men and women.

While this invention may strike one as frivolous and irreverent…it deals with a serious problem. What happens to everything we kept in our heads and hoped others would find amusing after we pass away? No trace of them will be left, unless…we write them down. Even that is not a guarantee. Libraries…are full of books no one reads any more. Anyone who frequents town dumps has seen yellowed manuscripts and letters thrown out with the trash—papers that sadly, but unmistakably, not even the family of their author wants. Just imagine…your dead grandmother is a big hit in some large urban cemetery, passing on her soup and pie recipes to an admiring crowd of young housewives; while your grandpa is telling dirty jokes to boys playing hooky from school….you, too, are regarded with interest by your friends and neighbors, who can’t help but wonder how your everlasting selection is coming along and what inspiring words and vile blasphemies they’ll be hearing from your gravestone.

Simic takes this idea and runs with it but he doesn’t go far enough. Surely the entertainment need not be restricted by the physical location of the grave. The eminently sensible extension of this plan would be for the deceased to be set up with their own website–complete with Facebook and Twitter feeds–so that the content to be served up from the gravestone would be efficiently and widely made available in as many forms of media as possible. Video, audio and text could all be provided and a variety of payment options–Paypal, conventional shopping carts–would facilitate the easy receipt of cash. Some minor curation of these pages would be required; this task could be performed by paid staff.

I imagine the most popular content to be served up from my webpage would be, in no particular order: audio recordings of my sonorous readings, in chronological order, of every single post on this blog; classroom videos of my coruscating lectures on all matters philosophical with particular attention and focus on my brilliant responses to student questions; smartphone videos of my joke-telling performances–shot late at night, late in a dinner party’s devolution. I would live on as internet celebrity, thus perhaps ensuring, after death, the fame that was rightfully mine in this life.

And even it didn’t happen, I would care less than I do now.