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.

Old Battles, Still Waged: Accepting ‘Defeat’ In Self-Improvement

Over the past couple of days, I have engaged in a time-honored academic ritual: the cleaning of one’s office. Old books, journal articles, student papers and blue books, random handouts from academic talks, conference badges–all fodder for the recycling bin. But I went further, looking for especially archaic material; and I found it in my graduate school notebooks. Scribbled notes from graduate seminars filled their pages; but much else too. In their pockets I found syllabi and handouts; and on their back pages, many, many notes written to myself during the seminar class period.

Some of these notes are simple reminders to myself: submit forms, pick up checks, finish reading etc. Yet others are financial calculations; in graduate school, I always lived on the edge, and frequent checks of my financial health were necessary. These, as can be seen, often distracted me even as I thought about metaphysics and ethics. And then, perhaps most poignantly, I find little injunctions and plans for self-improvement: eat more of this, eat less of that, run more, workout regularly, reading and writing schedules, smoke less or quit; and on and on. Sometimes I offer exhortations or admonitions to myself. These blueprints for a new me occur with some regularity; they represent a recurring concern of mine.

Those concerns and the ways in which I negotiate with them persist.

I still make lists of plans, I still draw up schedules of work and abstinence; I’m still struggling. Now, you can find the blueprints I speak of in my hard drive, tucked away into files; I don’t scribble them anymore.  But I continue to obsess over how I can get over this weakness, this flaw, this thing that is ‘holding me back’; I continue to obsess over how I can ‘change’ and ‘improve’ and be ‘better.’ When I see my notebooks, I see that I’m fighting many of the same battles that I used to fight back then; against distraction, anxiety, lack of discipline in my personal habits, in my ‘work ethic.’ I used to dream of transcending these, of moving on; it seems like I still am. Perhaps battles that have been waged this long are indicators of persistent failure on my part, a depressing thought at the best of times.

I’ve often written on this blog about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; perhaps talk of ‘self-improvement’ is a sham, a distracting disturbance that does not allow us to become truly comfortable with, and accepting of, ourselves. Perhaps we have not reconciled ourselves to who we are. But perhaps that’s who I am, the kind of person who will always be obsessed with making these kinds of changes and ‘improvements,’ who will never make them, or never in the way that I want, but yet never accept ‘defeat’ or ‘get the hint.’ In that case, perhaps the best way for me to accept who I am, to ‘become who you are!‘ is to not disdain this activity of constantly plotting and scheming to escape myself. To engage in it is to be me.

Perfect Strangers: Seeing And Hearing Ourselves

Here is a familiar phenomenon: we hear an audio recording of ourselves and are surprised and perplexed to find out we are listening to a stranger; we are used to hearing our voices from the ‘inside’; but when we hear a recording, we do so from the ‘outside.’ The timbre and tone of our voice is unfamiliar; we suddenly realize that the impact we imagine our words to have, the physical presence we think we command with our pronouncements, differs from that which we imagined it to be. Despite understanding the physics of this acoustic phenomena, it retains some of its mystery, continuing to imbue our daily conversations with an air of strangeness. A related phenomenon is finding out that you have an ‘accent’; soon after I arrived in the US some thirty years ago, I was informed of this fact, and it surprised me to no end. Where was it? I couldn’t hear it; I didn’t know what it was, even though I knew Americans spoke English in a manner quite distinct from mine.

But it is not just in the aural dimension that this perplexity arises: sometimes we observe a video recording of ourselves and find that we are strangers at home again. Our body language seems awkward, not as smooth as we hoped it be; our gestures not as practiced; our facial expressions seem to convey too much, too little; the emotions that we thought we were conveying are not the ones that are seemingly being transmitted by our bodies. As a teacher, used to ‘performing’ for ‘audiences’ of students, I am often disconcerted by my awareness of this gap in perceptions; I have never seen a video of myself teaching, though I have one of a conference presentation I made a few years ago; the viewing experience was, to put it mildly, jarring. I have never been able to view that twenty-minute video in its entirety; I switch it off after a few minutes, unable to reconcile myself to the presence of that stranger up on stage, pacing back and forth, his hands sometimes in his pocket, sometimes adjusting his eyeglasses, sometimes pointing at the projection screen.

We are used to being ‘misperceived’ because of language, of course; we write letters and essays and find ourselves unable to convey in untangled form the straight lines of the emotions and thoughts we entertain; we complain, voluminously, of how language renders us inarticulate; we seek refuge in terms like ‘ineffable’; some even invoke Nietzsche and say ‘whatever we have words for is already dead in our hearts; and so on. But we had imagined that there was at least one dimension in which we would be seen and heard clearly; and the audio and video recording tells us that even that comfort is denied us.

There is the ‘outside me,’ the one the world sees and hears, and there is the ‘inside me.’ We imagine ourselves to be physically ‘transparent,’ clearly visible to all, but we seem to always don a mask, one we cannot remove. We realize that our selves are personas, masks we use to navigate our way through this world, but we had imagined that was because we were selective in what we let ‘out’; but even that reminds us of the gap between what we sense from the ‘inside’ and what the world views from the ‘outside.’ Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.

On Apologizing To Your Child

On Thursday morning, I inexplicably, irrationally, and ultimately, cruelly, lost my temper at my four-year old daughter; I wanted her to do X; she did not; I thought my request was reasonable; she didn’t think it was; and then, when on my demanding reasons for her decision and denial of my request, she could not comply, I snapped. I stormed off, fuming; she was left in tears. Even as I did so, I knew I had fucked up, and spectacularly. And yet, perversely, my irritation and frustration–which was really what my anger amounted to–continued to cloud my mind for a minute or two. As those feelings receded, I walked back into my daughter’s bedroom, picked her up, gave her a hug, and asked her if she was hungry and wanted breakfast. She perked up, and said she did. A second or so later, as I carried her into the kitchen, she said she was ‘sorry’; I said I was too; and we hugged again. A minute or so later, she was smiling and happy. (Her mood improved even more when I told her I would get her a ‘pizza treat’ later that evening.) An hour later, she had left for preschool, and I headed to midtown Manhattan to get some work done at the CUNY Graduate Center library.

But all was not well; I was beset with a series of nagging thoughts all day. My daughter hadn’t done anything wrong; she had said ‘sorry’ because she knew a parent was angry at her, and that’s what you do when your parental figure is upset with you. I had been in the wrong all along; once my initial request had been denied, I should have backed off. Instead–like a petulant child–I had insisted, and then later, browbeaten her with a series of badgering demands for clarification of her reasons, all the while intimidating her with my tone of voice and body language. My daughter had never needed to apologize; she should have demanded one from me. I was the offender here; my perfunctory apology and ‘make-up’ in the morning was not enough.

That evening, I picked her up from pre-school, bought some pizza, and we returned home to eat and watch–as promised–a couple of short videos on lions and tigers in the wild. As we ate, I offered a more elaborate apology: I said I should have listened to her and respected her wishes, that she had been right, and I had been wrong. She listened rather solemnly–or about as solemnly as four-year olds can–and on my asking if she understood what I was trying to say, nodded her head. We then went back to watching big cats do what they do best.

I knew there would be times when I would have to apologize to my child; error-free parenting is impossible. I’ve done so before, but I don’t think I’ve ever quite made my admission of wrong-doing quite as explicit as it was on this occasion. Truth be told, it was a curiously uplifting experience.