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 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.

Milton’s Satan, Heaven and Hell, And The Mind

A few posts ago, in writing about the detritus that can be found on professor’s office doors, I had recounted a little self-indulgent story about first finding Cavafy’s The City. Today, I want to point you to another ‘found’ poem–more accurately, a fragment–located, not on an office door but rather, in a budding poet’s workspace. My discovery and reading of the fragment were notable because a) to date, it remains my central point of contact with its larger whole; b) because I ascribed a meaning to the fragment without reading the poem itself, and c) because my imagined narrator turned out to be very different from the one who actually speaks the line.

Circa 1995, as I slogged through my coursework at the CUNY Graduate Center, I found myself drawn, through a variety of circumstances, into a circle of ‘friends’–the quotemarks are an attempt to indicate the ambiguity of the relationship–that included a young graduate of a writing program at Emerson College, who lived, as befitted those New Yorkers that aspired to a Bohemian life, in a shared loft space in Brooklyn. I think it was Williamsburg, but it might well have been Bushwick. My memory fails me and not just because it was a long time ago: I was almost always inebriated when I visited that ‘space.’

One night, while stumbling around our poet’s loft in the midst of yet another episode of beer-drinking, I noticed a line from John Milton‘s Paradise Lost, printed out on a piece of paper and stuck above a desk. It read–as I remembered it, and quoted it for years:

What Matter Heaven or Hell, If I Remain the Same?

That line as I read it, and cited it, had a simple moralizing function. I used it to argue against escapism, and for the need for self-reconfiguration in psychological crisis; it made subjectivity central to any project of change, whether external or internal. I had not read Paradise Lost (confession: I have still not read it in its entirety), and knew little of this line’s location in its narrative and thus, remained oblivious of the identity of its narrator.

The actual line is a little different:

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

And these lines, of course, are spoken by the ‘fallen Archangel,’ Satan himself. And for him, they become part of the defenses he erects to protect himself against the Fall and the loss of Heaven: the displacement is permanent, but so long as his spirit and his consciousness are as ever before, all is not lost. They are an assertion of what persists, endures, survives, and is the key to flourishing in the midst of such terrible loss. I had used the line to indicate the locus of desired change; Milton has Satan employ it to indicate his resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity.

In doing so, in making Satan proclaim his ability to traverse Heaven and Hell with equal facility, to employ his mind to transcend the particularity of both, Milton made Satan almost heroic.