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.


John Nash On Thinking Rationally As Dieting

In A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, p. 351), Sylvia Nasar writes:

Nash has compared rationality to dieting, implying a constant, conscious struggle. It is a matter of policing one’s thoughts, he said, trying to recognize paranoid ideas and rejecting them, just the way somebody who wants to lose weight has to decide consciously to avoid fats or sweets. [link added]

This is a particularly perspicuous analogy for Nash to have made. For the failure rates of diets provide one grim indication of the difficulties of the task at hand: thinking ‘rationally’–whatever that may be, and for the time being, I’m going to elide the difficulties of providing an adequate definition–is almost destined to fail for most people. We get on the wagon, we fall off, we get back on again, straining and striving, only to find out at the most inopportune of moments that our reserves of resilience have run dry, and that we have relapsed.

This slip back down the slope, back to where the rock waits for us, waiting to be pushed back up the slope, is suggestive in more ways than one.

First, the ultimate objective, a lower weight, a more rational mind, remains a contested goal: we might not want to get to the top. We have received conflicting signals about the desirability of it all. Sure, a lower weight will transform some statistics pertaining to my health in a favorable manner, but perhaps my aspiration for it is grounded largely in vanity and low self-esteem, in a failure to accept myself for what I am. And as the Underground Man suspected, thinking rationally isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either–especially if it ends up excluding vast domains of experience and reflection. Or, as another master of suspicion might have wondered: Why should we think ‘rationally’? Who wants us to do so? What is in it for them? Perhaps, I could define ‘rational’ in a way that is more suited to the achievement of ends that I have freely chosen for myself; if I have to ‘overcome’ myself, let me do so my own way, driven by my own needs and wants.

This further suggests then that the dieting and reasoning Sisyphus might, while only partway up the slope, let go of the rock himself. Not only are the doubts about the destination overwhelming, but so is the promised relief of the downhill journey back to the rock. We should not forget that Sisyphus has the  pleasures of an easier task ahead of him now; sure, the agonizing task of pushing the rock back up the slope awaits, but for now, sweet release awaits. (Let us not forget the pleasures of the early stages of the ascent too.)

Perhaps rationality, like dieting, only ‘works’ if it’s not seen as such; if it’s not a program of self-improvement, but an ongoing way of life. That ongoing way requires constant decisions and choices, each consuming considerable cognitive resources; pitfalls abound along this path. Failure is more common than success; as it should be, given the ambiguities noted above. And much as we use the data pertaining to the failures of diets into our reckonings of what a ‘good weight’ is, and what ‘success’ in a diet amounts to, we should reconfigure our notions of the desirability and possibility of rationality as well.

Kōbō Abe’s ‘Woman in The Dunes’ And The Scientist’s Existentialist Despair

Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes wears and displays its existentialist, absurdist aspirations openly and transparently; this is its terse Wikipedia summation:

In 1955, Jumpei Niki, a schoolteacher from Tokyo, visits a fishing village to collect insects. After missing the last bus, he is led, by the villagers, in an act of apparent hospitality, to a house in the dunes that can be reached only by ladder. The next morning the ladder is gone and he finds he is expected to keep the house clear of sand with the woman living there, with whom he is also to produce children. He eventually gives up trying to escape when he comes to realize returning to his old life would give him no more liberty. After seven years, he is proclaimed officially dead. [citations removed.]

Yes, there is a Sisyphean task here; the labors are joint–crucially, involving both a man and a woman–but seemingly infinite and never-ending anyway. The mystery over why Niki is treated as he is by the villagers is never given a satisfactory solution, and indeed, as in the case of those who counterproductively continue digging in holes, efforts to solve this conundrum only heighten its inexplicability. Bafflement, bewilderment, anger, frustration are Niki’s primary responses, and they are all equally efficacious–that is, they are not in the least.

A perplexed protagonist, a brutal, unrewarding task, an unsolved mystery, the realization that deliverance is not forthcoming; yes, this is an existentialist novel.

There are two interesting embroiderings of these basic existentialist themes in Abe’s novel. First, the novel is set ten years after the end of the Second World War, ten years after hell was dragged  up from its depths and deposited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus, on the Japanese nation. This is a world in which the firmness of an older universe has been replaced by the shifting and transient sand of a new relationship with the world; sand, as Abe reminds us, is ‘fragmented rock,’ once solid and imposing, now beaten down. The Japanese, of whom Niki and the woman are as good representatives as any other, might yet be buried by this relentless invader of their older world. Second, Niki is not just any man, any Japanese. He is a schoolteacher, and moreover, he is a man of science. He is an entomologist; he studies sand as well, and is fascinated by its physical properties.

As a man of science, Niki expects his situations in this world to be infected by the same reason he sees underwriting the cosmos. He is, precisely because of this intellectual orientation, unprepared for the villagers’ mysterious, criminal behavior: Why have they kidnapped him? Do they really think they can get away with this absurd plot? The villagers do not care; they are absorbed in their task. The woman does not know and she does not too, seem to care too much. If there is a concern for consequences, it is a narrowly circumscribed one: what will happen if the sand is not kept at bay? This encounter, this futile dashing of the hopes of the man of science that a reasonable explanation will be found for all that afflicts us, that the methods which have made so much of the world comprehensible will make the villagers and their task less mysterious, gives Abe’s novel its most acute sense of desperation and despair.

On Failing In Our Own Style

In Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 39) Julian Barnes writes:

But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure….

His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion.

We are reminded, in many walks of life, that it is not only winning that is important, we must lose, if such is our fate, with dignity too. This ‘American academic,’ whose biography of Edmund Gosse will almost certainly never be completed (perhaps because the weight of its own ambition drags it down and renders onward movement impossible), has found his own unique realization of that state of grace–a state not suffused with bitterness and resentment. Success is not imminent; failure is highly probable; better to not rage against the dying light if that rage were to result in further indignities being heaped upon an already bowed head, a knee already bent.  Cut the line; sink gently to the bottom.

A realization that many dreamed of projects–members of the dreaded ‘bucket list’–will not ever be made manifest is sometimes said to dawn in ‘middle age.’ (The scare quotes indicate that ‘middle age’ is not a precise chronological quantity.) Then, our bodies betray us with ever greater frequency, we realize–thanks to a clear remembrance of the past–that a pattern of behavior we have been trying desperately to modify has been an ever-present feature of our selves, and that new habits are increasingly harder to form. Self-improvement becomes intractable; we become tired of the role of Sisyphus we have been cast in. We had imagined for ourselves an endless and infinitely renewable plasticity; we had extended ourselves and pushed against the bounds of our being and capabilities; but we find familiar barriers blocking our path onwards and upwards.

Under such circumstances Ed Winterton’s strategy is an eminently respectable one–even if not beloved of those who compose inspirational quotations for calendars and internet memes. At some point, we cease the straining and start to find greater comfort in homilies that urge us to accept ourselves for who we are, to not live for the future, but for the present. These now appeal to our sensibility–a more ambitious version of which had scorned them in the past. Now they appear to speak to a truth previously unglimpsed.

The notion of ‘a correct and acceptable fashion’ for failure introduces a wrinkle of course. It is unclear whose standards of correctness and acceptability we are to follow as we decide to settle for failure. Surely, we cannot imitate and emulate other failures; they are failures after all. The ambiguity of such a description provides hope then for one last signature gesture. If we are to fail, then we must fail in our own distinctive style; we must choose its manner and time and mode of expression. (Remember the bit about unhappy families being unhappy in their own particular way.) If we cannot succeed, then let us not at least fail at failing.

Mankind as Deluded Sisyphus

As the apocalypse closes in again on humanity in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Joshua, who has been ‘chosen’ to ‘escape’ into space, leaving this world behind, wonders about the cyclical nature of human history:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was  missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they?–this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness. [pp. 285]

These reflections on mankind’s supposed propensity for self-destruction indict it of a particular–and peculiar–failing: a lack of self-knowledge, a misguided or deluded Sisypheanism (which I noted a while ago in the context of personal quests for ‘self-improvement.’) To wit, the achievement of a previously desired state is not enough; a regression–to the bottom–is undertaken; the climb to the ‘top’ begins again; the pleasure of ascending through the ‘lower stages’ is re-experienced; and this novelty, this rapid transience, is all the reward sought or desired. The desired state, the supposed end point, is merely used as marker–it is never to be attained, only the pleasure of the movement toward it is sought.

The nature of the recurrence–the rise, the fall, the rise, the fall again–in mankind’s history, as depicted in Miller’s science-fiction classic, suggests that mankind prefers the anticipatory pleasures of hoping for unavailable light in the ‘wretched darkness’ to learning how to reconcile itself to the illumination of the brightly lit day. The ‘richness and power and beauty’ of this ‘garden of pleasure’ – the world constructed with knowledge and technique and painfully acquired wisdom acts as a disincentive for inquiry, as a retardant on the ‘yearning’, the movement to ‘perfection.’ Thus the destruction, so that the seeking, and its pleasures, may be re-experienced.

Here then, the inevitability of the recurrence finds its grounding in the nature of man, not in the workings of the cosmos. Man is not subject to the cycles of the Eternal Recurrence because such are the cosmologies he confronts, but rather it is because he is the kind of creature who will make of his world a cyclical one, in which he can find his most coveted pleasures in the form he desires. The darkness returns again and again because man brings it back, finding in its enveloping folds a space for his desires not afforded him elsewhere.

Unmasking our Self-Deception about Self-Improvement

In reviewing the incongruous medley of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and two new translations of Dante‘s classic (by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang), Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology. (‘Dante: The Most Vivid VersionNew York Review of Books, 24 October 2013).

In my post on the ‘Sisyphus of sorts’ a couple of days ago, I had sought to provide an unmasking of projects of self-improvement, which all too many of us find ourselves engaged in with little hope–based on their persistent failure–of bringing them to completion. (I hesitate to say ‘similar unmasking’ for fear of being viewed as comparing my attempt to Dante’s!) That post–hopefully!–speaks for itself, but let me, at the risk of sounding excessively pompous, just embellish its claims just a bit.

Repeated, and failed, attempts at self-improvement and self-help display a familiar pattern: the old behavior is discarded in a burst of moralistic enthusiasm, the old lifestyle is deprecated and disdained, and enthusiastic reports are provided on the glories and attractions of the new path chosen. There is relief at a millstone discarded and this palpable emotion is loudly and visibly noted.

Yet, through all this, all too often, the attractions of the older way of being, which indeed, had made it such a persistently adopted mode of behavior, are not paid their due. We fail to recognize that that path had its own role to play in the forms of life we lived; we fail to note the deep habits it formed; no clean surgical excision of it from our selves has been effected. And then, there is the simple matter of the ‘sophomore effect’; the rapid gains visible in the early days of our new-found virtuous life are quickly replaced by the far more mundane, glacial increments of the life that comes about when such novel behavior has become commonplace.

We remain impatient; we miss the easy pleasures of the older way of being, which suddenly, now seems more attractive than ever. So we lapse. But now we encounter again its pathologies. And so we resolve to change again.

The self-deception here is that we do not seek the publicly avowed goal of self-improvement, but merely the movement away from a kind of stagnation, a state of wallowing. When we encounter yet another one, as is inevitable, for life cannot give us endless novelty, we seek out our ‘fall’ again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, quiescent states.

A Sisyphus of Sorts

Here is a familiar enough occurrence: you set off on a journey toward a desired destination, perhaps a state of mind, perhaps a bodily accomplishment, a state of excellence in some manner, shape, form or fashion; you make good time, you travel many miles; you amaze yourself with your speed and the distance covered; you are exhilarated by the heights you now experience; you are no longer bound to the earth, the air is cleaner, more invigorating; you congratulate yourself on your journey thus far; you look back on how far you’ve come, on all those you left behind; the solitude of this seldom traveled road strikes you as splendid; you dare to dream of the now-visible goal.

And then, the upward gradient ceases; the plateau begins; the steps grow more measured, more tedious; the miles covered shrink slowly to yards and inches; the feet drag; the euphoria is gone, replaced by ennui; the formerly clean air is still so, but it has a staleness all its own; the novelty, the thrill, is gone. The goal is still visible, but now obscured by the dust kicked up by your dragging feet; the certainty about its attainment is now replaced by a nagging, persistent, doubt over the wisdom of ever having started this journey. The virtuousness that was once the consequence of declining indulgences now strikes you as a foolishness all of its own; what price this sustained flagellation, this persistent self-denial?

And so, you weaken, you hesitate, you seek diversion, an easier slope. The most facile of those is the path downward, the amble downhill. On it, the pace is greater; the wind presses hard against you, refreshing you once again. Soon enough, you are back in the lowlands. You refuse, guiltily, to look up at the tops again; you declined them once, why remind yourself of that turning away?

But soon, you find the air stifling; the oppression that animated you once returns; all is cumbersome. Whence the lightness, the fleet-footedness you had felt in the highlands? You remember the ascent, the coolness, the euphoria, the shedding of all that was heavy and bore you down. You remember the weightlessness, the sense of endless possibility. You regret the escape, the diversion, the flinching and turning away. You resolve to make the journey again.

And so you set off, rolling your rock back up the hill. Those familiar feelings return; you remember why you thought this was a good idea. You remind yourself the plateau awaits; you await its appearance warily; you stiffen your spine in anticipation. But when it does appear, a familiar feeling, a familiar dismay asserts itself. Soon enough, an old path downward is traversed.

Later, after the disgust of the defeat and the claustrophobia of the lower reaches have sent you back, yet again, on your old ascent, as you head upward, you realize that this is what you really wanted, the exultation of the pulling away, the steepness of the first few steps, the first movements upward. That elusive goal, its shape and location often obscured, only served to motivate the first journey. From then on, what you truly craved was the initial ascension, which had the most acute slopes of all, where you made the most accelerated, tangible progress.  Not for you the long plodding, slow, grind to the end; you always only sought only the path that made you feel the most fleet-footed.

You don’t really mind being a Sisyphus of sorts.