Iris Murdoch On Interpreting Our Messages To Ourselves

In Iris Murdoch‘s Black Prince (1973), Bradley Pearson wonders about his “two recent encounters with Rachel and how calm and pleased I had felt after the first one, and how disturbed and excited I now felt after the second one”:

Was I going to “fall in love” with Rachel? Should I even play with the idea, utter the words to myself? Was I upon the brink of some balls-up of catastrophic dimensions, some real disaster? Or was this perhaps in an unexpected form the opening itself of my long-awaited “break through,” my passage into another world, into the presence of the god? Or was it just nothing, the ephemeral emotions of an unhappily married middle-aged woman, the transient embarrassment of an elderly puritan who had for a very long time had no adventures at all? [Penguin Classics edition, New York, 2003, p. 134]

Pearson is right to be confused and perplexed. The ‘messages’ we receive from ‘ourselves’ at moments like these–ethical dilemmas being but the most vivid–can be counted upon to be garbled in some shape or fashion. The communication channel is noisy; and the identity of the communicating party at ‘the other end’ is obscure. Intimations may speak to us–as they do to Pearson–of both the sordid and sublime for we are possessed, in equal measure, by the both devilish and the divine; these intimations promise glory but they also threaten extinction. What meaning are we to ascribe to them? What action are we to take at their bidding? A cosmic shrug follows, and we are left to our own devices all over again. ‘Listen to your heart’ is as useless as any other instruction in this domain, for ‘the heart’ also speaks in confusing ways; its supposed desires are as complex, as confusing as those of any other part of ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is not an aberration, a pathological state of affairs; it is the norm for creatures as divided as us, as superficially visible to ourselves, as possessed by the unconscious. (Freud’s greatest contribution to moral psychology and literature was to raise the disturbing possibility that it would be unwise to expect coherence–moral or otherwise–from agents as internally divided, as self-opaque as us.)

We interpret these messages, these communiques, from ourselves with tactics and strategies and heuristics that are an unstable mixture of the expedient, the irrational, the momentarily pleasurable; we deal with ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ as best as we can, absorbing the ‘lessons’ they impart with some measure of impatience; we are unable to rest content and must move on, for life presses in on us at every turn, generating new crises, each demanding resolution. Our responses can only satisfice, only be imperfect.

The Clash were right thus, to wonder, to be provoked into an outburst of song, by the question of whether they should ‘stay or go.‘ We do not express our indecision quite as powerfully and vividly as they do, but we feel the torment it engenders in our own particular way.

Anger, Melancholia, And Distraction

Anger is a funny business; it’s an unpleasant emotion for those on the receiving end, and very often, in its effects, on those who are possessed by it. And there is no denying that it affords a pleasure of sorts to those consumed by it; it would not have the fatal attraction it does if it did not. That kind of anger, of course, is a righteous anger; we feel ourselves possessed by a sense of rectitude as we rail against those who have offended us; we are in the right, they are in the wrong, and the expression of our anger acts as a kind of confirmation of that ‘fact.’ But anger’s hangover is very often unpleasant, and among its vivid features is a crippling melancholia. We became angry because we had been ‘wounded’ in some shape or fashion, and while the expression of our anger is often a powerful and effective palliative against the pain of that injury, it is almost always a temporary one. What is left in its wake is a complex welter of emotions: we are sad, of course, because the hurt of the injury is still with us; we are fearful too, because we dread the same kind of injury again; our anger might have fatally wounded an important personal relationship or friendship; we might well have ventured out into unknown territory, fueled by anger, trusting it to guide us, but instead find ourselves at an unknown pass, one whose contours we do not know yet to navigate. (I used the word ‘possessed’ above deliberately to indicate a kind of capture or hijacking of the self; to describe a person ‘suffering’ from anger might be equally accurate in terms of describing the sense of being a patient, one helpless in the face of an emotion running wild.)

I write about anger and distraction and anxiety here because I suffer from all of them; they are my psychic burdens, my crosses to carry. On one view, anger and distraction both bottom out in a kind of anxiety and fear. As I noted recently, I do not think I will ever rid myself of anxiety; it is a state of being. Because of that, I do not think I will rid myself of anger either. Anger cripples me–not just in personal relationships but in another crucial domain as well; it corrodes and attenuates my ability to do creative work. This failure induces its own melancholia; my sense of self is wrapped up quite strongly in terms of not just my personal relationships and social roles and responsibilities–like being a husband and father and teacher–but also my reading and writing. (I’m loath to describe this activity of mine as ‘scholarship’ and am quite  happy to describe my intellectual status as ‘someone who likes to read and write.’) Reading and writing are well-nigh impossible in the febrile states induced by anger; among the terrible costs of anger this one brings with it an especially heavy burden for me. When I sought out a meditation practice a few years ago, one of my primary motivators was to ‘tame’ or ‘master’ this terrible beast somehow; it remains an ongoing struggle, one not helped by a falling off in my commitment to my meditation ‘sits.’ I write here, of course, as part of a process to try to reintroduce that in my life. More on that attempt anon.

A Complex Act Of Crying

I’ve written before, unapologetically, on this blog, about my lachrymose tendencies: I cry a lot, and I dig it. One person who has noticed this tendency and commented on it is my daughter. She’s seen ‘the good and the bad’: once, overcome by shame and guilt for having reprimanded her a little too harshly, I broke down in tears as I apologized to her; my daughter, bemused, accepted my apology in silence. Sometimes, my daughter has noticed my voice quiver and break as I’ve tried to read her something which moved me deeply; the most recent occurrence came when I read to her a children’s book on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–as I began to tell my daughter about the first time I, as a teenager, had experienced the King legend in a televised documentary. I had to stop reading, hand over those duties to my wife, and watch as my daughter heard the rest the book read to her. And, of course, because my daughter and I often listen to music together, my daughter has seen me respond to music with tears. On these occasions, she is convinced that I’m crying because I’m ‘so happy!’

In recent times the song that has served to induce tears in me almost immediately is Chrissie Hynde‘s cover of Bob Dylan‘s ‘I Shall Be Released‘ at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1997. (Here is a music video of the  performance; the audio can be found, among other places on Spotify.) No matter what, whenever my daughter and I have sat down some evening–in between dinner and bath and story time–to watch and listen to Chrissie Hynde put her unique and distinctive touch on Dylan’s classic (ably backed up by one of the best house bands of all time – GE Smith and Booker T and the MGs among others), tears spring to my eyes. I’m not sure why; the lyrics are powerful and speak to release, redemption, deliverance, and salvation; it is almost impossible for me to not, at this stage, read so much of the song’s message into a promise of kind directed at my way, at my particular ‘prison’–of the self and its seemingly perennial, unresolvable, crises and challenges. Something in those lyrics–and their singing by Hynde–seemed to offer reassurance, kindly and gently, and with, dare I say it, an existential love for all fellow human sufferers.

So I cry. And my daughter notices. She is both delighted and ever so slightly perplexed; this is her father, a fount of both affection and discipline, a man who struggles at the best of times to find the right balance between gentleness and firmness. She is curious, and so lately, when we play the song, she takes her eyes off the screen to look at me instead; she is waiting for me to cry; and on every occasion, I have ‘come through.’ Now, the song has acquired another dimension for my daughter; she wants to play it so she can see her father cry because he is ‘so happy.’ I don’t have the heart to tell her that my feelings are a little more complicated, and besides, it is true, I’m almost ecstatic as I begin to cry, to feel a little more, and to see my daughter break out in a huge smile.

And so now, if I listen to this song by myself, either on video or audio, I cry again, but something has been added to the song: my daughter’s reaction to it, to my crying. Its emotional texture is richer, more meaningful now; now when I listen to it, I see her turn to gaze into my eyes, looking for the first hint of moisture that will tell her that Papa’s reserve is no more. And I know that years from now, when I listen to this song again, I will cry again, because its lyrics will not just carry their original emotional resonance but also the memory of those days when I used to watch and listen to it with a five-year old girl, now grown older, wiser, and perhaps less inclined to spend such time with her father. That knowledge makes these moments even more powerfully emotionally informed; and yes, even more tear-inducing. A welcome situation.

Virginia Woolf On Autobiography And Not Writing ‘Directly About The Soul’

In Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature, (New York Review of Books, 13 August, 2015), Joyce Carol Oates writes:

[Virginia] Woolf suggests the power of a different sort of inspiration, the sheerly autobiographical—the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience….What is required, beyond memory, is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s, constituting an entirely new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Woolf noted, “fertile” and “fluent”:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in. [link added above]

I will freely confess to being obsessed by autobiography and memoir. Three planned book projects of mine, each in varying stages of early drafting and note-taking, are autobiographical, even as I can see more similar ventures in the offing; another book, Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, currently contracted to Temple University Press, is a memoir; yet another book Eye on Cricket, has many autobiographical passages; and of course, I often write quasi-autobiographical, memoirish posts on this blog all the time. In many ways, my reasons for finding myself most comfortable in this genre echo those of Woolf’s: I find my writing within its confines to be at its most ‘fertile’ and ‘fluent’–if at all, it ever approaches those marks; I write ‘fast’ and ‘freely’ when I write about recollections and lessons learned therein; I find that combining my past sensations and memories with present and accumulated judgments and experiences results in a fascinating, more-than-stereoscopic perspective that I often find to be genuinely illuminating and revealing. (Writing memoirs is tricky business, as all who write them know. No man is an island and all that, and so our memoirs implicate the lives of others as they must; those lives might not appreciate their inclusion in our imperfect, incomplete, slanted, agenda-driven, literary recounting of them. Still, it is a risk many are willing to take.)

Most importantly, writing here, or elsewhere, on autobiographical subjects creates a ‘couch’ and a ‘clinic’ of sorts; I am the patient and I am the therapist; as I write, the therapeutic recounting and analysis and story-retelling kicks off; the end of a writing session has at its best moments, brought with it moments of clarity and insight about myself to the most important of quarters: moi. More than anything else, this therapeutic function of autobiographical writing confirms yet another of Woolf’s claims: that “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Sometimes, one must look at the blank page, and hope to find the soul take shape there instead.

 

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.

 

Lionel Trilling As Philosopher Of Culture

In Freud and The Crisis of our Culture, Lionel Trilling writes:

The idea of culture, in the modern sense of the word, is a relatively new idea. It represents a way of thinking about our life in society which developed concomitantly with certain ways of conceiving the self. Indeed, our modern idea of culture may be thought of as a new sort of self-hood bestowed upon the whole of society….Society in this new selfhood, is thought of as having a certain organic unity, an autonomous character and personality which it expresses in everything it does; it is conceived to have a style, which is manifest not only in its unconscious, intentional activities, in its architecture, its philosophy, and so on, but also in its unconscious activities, in its unexpressed assumptions–the unconscious of society may be said to have been imagined before the unconscious of the individual….Generally speaking, the word “culture” is used in an honorific sense. When we look at a people in the degree of abstraction which the idea of culture implies, we cannot but be touched and impressed by what we see, we cannot help being awed by something mysterious at work, some creative power which seems to transcend any particular act or habit or quality that may not be observed. To make a coherent life, to confront the terrors of the inner and outer world, to establish the ritual and art, the pieties and duties which make possible the life of the group and the individual–these are culture and to contemplate these efforts of culture is inevitably moving.

Trilling here offers two understandings of ‘culture’: first, in a manner similar to Nietzsche’s, he suggests it is a kind of society-wide style, a characteristic and distinctive and particular way of being which permeates its visible and invisible, tangible and intangible components; we should expect this to be only comprehensible in a synoptic fashion, one not analyzable necessarily into its constituent components. Second, Trilling suggests ‘culture’ is even more abstract, a kind of plurality of thing and feeling and sensibility that organizes the individual and society alike into a coherent whole. (This union can, of course, be the subject of vigorous critique as well c.f. Freud in Civilization and its Discontents.) This plural understanding of Trilling’s is a notable one: many activities that we would consider acts of self-knowledge and construction are found here, thus suggesting culture is a personal matter too, that the selves of many contribute to the societal selfhood spoken of earlier. Here in culture too, we find the most primeval strivings to master the fears and uncertainties of our minds and the world; religion and poetry and philosophy are rightly described as cultural strivings. Ultimately, culture is affective; we do not remain unmoved by it, it exerts an emotional hold on us, thus binding ever more tightly that indissoluble bond of rationality and feeling that makes us all into unique ‘products’ of our ‘home’ cultures. When culture is ‘done’ with us, it provides us with habit and manner and a persona; it grants us identity.

Thirty Years After: Reflections On Migration

Thirty years ago on this day, I migrated to the US. At New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, I boarded a British Airlines flight to London Heathrow from where I would board a connection to New York City, and set off. My mother and my best friend dropped me off at the airport; my grandmother had bought me a one-way ticket with her savings as a farewell gift. I ran to the gates; I was eager to leave, eager to move on to a new life. Thirty years later, in at least one measure, I haven’t gone too far; I’ve only moved from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Brooklyn in New York City; I’ve remained stuck on the East Coast, only able to make a short hop across the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York City–with a short, two-year stint in between in Sydney, Australia. But much–besides the progression of visas and residency permits from F-1 to H-1 to ‘green card’ to ‘US passport’–has changed.

Then, I was twenty; now, I’m fifty. Then, I was single, about to commence a graduate program in computer science and go on, hopefully, to a ‘respectable’ job. Now, I’m a husband and a father, a professor of philosophy at one of America’s largest urban public universities. Then, I would speak of a ‘home’ left behind; now, I can only write ‘home’ in scare quotes, even as I acknowledge that I have found one on this side of the world, one in which my daughter will grow up and find her way about, one whose well-being and future concerns me more than other places elsewhere; it is the place in the world to which I’m the most committed, emotionally and politically.

I’m a mongrel now; I sound funny to both Indians and Americans because my accent has morphed; both ‘sides’ have accused me, on occasion, of being insufficiently ‘genuine,’ of not being ‘the real thing’; immigrants can never be the McCoy; we will always be ‘outsiders’ no matter where we go; more than one group can tell us to ‘go back where we came from.’ Back in India, I feel like a tourist who can speak the local language really well; that land too has changed while I was ‘away.’ My in-laws live in the US; my daughter will find grandparents only here. She will know little of India and where ‘I came from’; she will not speak an Indian language. Children are always strangers to their parents (and vice-versa); the children of immigrants perhaps even more so.

In an essay I wrote recently, I made note of my aspiration at one time to be an ‘American immigrant’–it was a description that spoke of both success and a virtuous kind of work, one that elevated the very being of those who undertook it; it was how I understood the American immigrant experience from afar. Like all things observed from a distance, many of its most crucial features became visible on closer inspection; the life I was to undertake in the US would be considerably different from what I had imagined it to be. I was often found wanting; as was, it seemed, my home of choice. I considered myself prepared for this new life; I was not. But those shortfalls, those gaps, those mismeasures, they all added up to a new understanding of myself and this place. ‘America’ and ‘I’ both acquired new contours thanks to this encounter of ours. America acted on me, and I on it; it was bound to be an asymmetrical relationship; I changed more than America did in response to my presence here. But I like to think I’ve made this little patch of mine distinctive too, and brought to it my own peculiar and particular stamp, my own unique influence and signature.  My childhood in India colored my sense of time and space and still influences the way I see the world; but America, and its landscapes and light and air and skies have crept into my being too; they too, now, afford me the lenses with which I sense and experience the world.

In these three decades past, I learned, in America, all over again, that I was not and could not be, a self-made man; that I would always rely on the aid and succor provided by others. Sometimes they were other immigrants; sometimes they were Americans, of all stripes, kinds, and colors. They all helped me, all loaned a helping hand. Some loaned me money, others bought and cooked me meals, gave me a place to sleep, told me where to go, what to do, spoke up for me, taught me, loaned me books, read my writings–this list could go on. I’m not a self-made man; I’ve relied, unashamedly, on others, on friends, family, and strangers. An immigrant’s story can never just be about the immigrant; it must also be about all those who made that life possible. I’m glad that others have helped write the book of my life; and I’m glad that so much of it has been written in America, by Americans.

My political stance often casts me as hyper-critical; it is an anxious one, eager to make this land into a better one for my family and my friends and for the communities that have given me a home over the years in this land. My concerns for my former homeland are far more limited; my political ambit is circumscribed by my location and my available commitment; I have become an American by dint of where I live, and what I care about the most.

I have not stopped moving yet; I sense more displacement in my future. I am reconciled to it; it seems like a way of being. Indeed, I feel restless now, astir again. Migration induces a restlessness that will not cease; the initial inertia of our first home is never regained. I used to bemoan the lack of a resting place; now, I could not abide the absence of motion, possible or actual. Other migrations might lie yet in my future.