Category Archives: Authenticity

Gaining the Whole World and Losing Your Own Soul

Yesterday’s post addressed the subject of alienation, being trapped in an inauthentic existence while the heart pines for the taste of genuine human experience.  This “imprisonment” is the situation in which one’s persona grips an individual so tightly that the heart has been stifled to the point that he has no awareness of any dimension of life other than the “suit of clothes” that he wears.  It is relevant to a poetic quip of W. H. Auden, “We drive through life in the closed cab of occupation,” seeing the world only through the skewed prism of our “occupation” or basic, unquestioned assumptions about life.

Auden had another observation about this existential predicament, noting in one poem, “In the desert of my heart, let the healing fountain start.  In the prison of my days, teach this free man how to praise.”  Auden recognized that this existential “entrapment” in the world of appearances often grates against the soul to the point that one wants an escape which, in his estimation, merits a simple prayer of gratitude for the gift of life.  We are “here” and this “here-ness” is the simplest but most profound thing that we have, the simple gift of “be-ing” alive in this brief parenthesis of time.

Social critics, writers, and artists have been crying out since the mid-19th century about this loss of soul which is the by-product of modern industrialized, technologized human life.  One of my favorite examples is Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman” which was a smash-hit in 1949 and is estimated by many to be the greatest American play of the 20th century.  The lead character in the play, Willy Loman, is at the end of his successful career as a salesman and he is gradually feeling that his employer is “putting him out to pasture.”  In fact, this process culminates in the play when, after protestations to his boss about the matter, Willy is fired.

Miller uses Willy Loman and his family to poignantly illustrate the mid-20th century expression of what happens when a man comes to the end of his career and finds that he has nothing but emptiness remaining, his persona having become obsolete, or “used up” and cast aside by the corporate world.  Anger, resentment, and frustration overcome Loman as he realizes that his life is, “over,” over in that he no longer had an identity without the successes he delighted in with his job.  Without his persona, there was nothing left.

A social structure functions because of the human ability to take on a role, a “persona,” and fulfill the obligations of that role.  The problem arises only when that social structure becomes such a behemoth that individuals are devoured by it, their very lives having become only that of a “thing” which has as its primary purpose only in keeping the behemoth afloat.  The illusions of the culture become so powerful and stifling that there is no room left in an individual’s heart for authenticity.  In our modern consumer society this is often described as human identity having devolved to the point in which it’s only a “consumer,” a “consuming unit” designed to buy more “stuff,” and thus keep the “stuff-producing” apparatus going.  In this, “Brave New World,” of Aldous Huxley, human value can be summed up in the quip, “Whoever has the most toys at the end of the game is the winner!”

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Self-Deception, Dishonesty, and Epistemic Closure

In my last post I explored epistemic closure on the group level, using the observations from the former Czechoslovakian  writer, artist, actor, and politician,  Vaclav Havel.  Today I’d like to focus on the personal dimension of this closed-mindedness. Havel used the term “post-totalitarian state” to describe a state which operates under a subtle totalitarian state-of-mind which purports to be completely open and honest, i.e. “free.”  In this “Brave New World” prison, there is the surface belief of freedom but only because the bars which constitute the prison are so subtly imposed that they are not obvious to most.  In this “benign” police state, the gears, wheels, and pulleys that orchestrate the bondage are so well-hidden beneath the surface they are not noticed, consisting in ideological subtleties that can only be seen by those who have the capacity for self-reflection.

The individual dimension of this epistemic closure operates in accordance with the collective version described last time. Individuals imprisoned in this, “empty world of self-relatedness,” are encapsulated in their own premises which are not subject to review because there is no “self” consciousness available to conduct such a review.  The onset of such “self” consciousness would constitute a “splinter in the brain” which would be so catastrophic that internal, unacknowledged (i.e. “unconscious”) defenses would immediately intervene and rely on bromides such as the currently popular, “Fake News.”

But this “imprisonment” I’m describing is not necessarily as sinister as I’m making it appear.  Any identity seeks to maintain itself, to cohere, which means it has a certain core that borders on the sacrosanct.  In fact, “sacred” can describe this core as it is the very essence of our being and if this “essence” is not poisoned it will help us maintain a sense of integrity even in the face of conflict.  But if real “integrity” is present then conflict is welcome as exposure to different view points facilitates the flourishing, or “unfolding,” of an identity, allowing it to contribute meaningfully to the context in which it lives.  When this core is “poisoned,” however, any different viewpoint invokes that fear of “splintering” and leads to the creation of a false world in which any threats are minimized or prohibited.  In the extreme, the result is psychosis in which one’s private prison has become so confining that reference to any feedback from the external world has been cut off and one is left with the aforementioned, “empty world of self-relatedness.”

Marilynne Robinson on Subjectivity, Dissent, Rationality, and Faith

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most astute social critics and feminist writers in our contemporary world.  In the current edition of The New Republic she has an article about Martin Luther and the dissent that he introduced which led to the Protestant Revolution.  She points out that Luther was a very conflicted soul, certainly “haunted” and driven by forces he was not aware of, but appearing at a ripe moment in history and has proving to be a pivotal figure in Western Civilization.  I also can see how one could even argue that the direction he led us was not even in the best interest of mankind, given our present day capacity to allow “dissent” to become such a way of life that even a “rational” body like the U.S. Congress is anything but rational.

Even in her youth Marilynne was a thoughtful sensitive soul, very “aware” of her own subjective experience and the world in which she lived, even that of flora and fauna. The following is from an article in Christianity Today magazine about Robinson’s keen spiritual sensitivity.  The writer pointed out that she developed a keen sense of observation, including the Ineffable, recalling that she could sense God’s presence there long before she had a name for him. “I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me,” she writes, “barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it.” Perhaps they were, but in a culture in which “it was characteristic to be silent about things that in any way moved them,” the young Robinson was, in her deepest experiences, alone.”

“There were mentors, though. She remembers her grandfather holding an iris blossom before her, quietly commending its miracle of form, and the “patient old woman who taught me Presbyterianism,” offering Moses’ burning bush and Pharaoh’s dream of famine as wonders to contemplate. In their reticent attention, both mentors gave Robinson a way to stand before mystery and gradually behold it. “It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again.”

Her subjective “aliveness” is best illustrated in her first novel, “Housekeeping” in which an Aunt cares for two young nieces and leads them into her eccentric, “hippy” world of myth and magic.  One of the nieces eventually rejects this life for the “normal” while the other takes off with her aunt for a vagabond life of adventure in an ethereal world of which most of us are oblivious, where distinctions are nebulous.  The most memorable line in this novel for me is, “Emptiness can blossom into all the compensations it requires.”  Robinson knew, and still knows, that the realm of the imagination holds riches untold for humankind if we are but willing to find the courage to venture there, allowing our intellect to be refreshed by the energy that lies there.

Here is the context from, “Housekeeping,” in which the aforementioned quotation occurs, “For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries!

WHAT ARE YEARS by Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

I have referenced and explored this poem before in this venue, but I wish to delve deeply into the heart of the matter this time.  She dives into the meat of her message with “he who sees deep and is glad” to introduce the notion of furrowing into the marrow of life which, borrowing from the title of an Adrienne Rich poem I like to describe as, “Diving into the Wreck.”  For the “deep,” i.e. the “marrow” will always be murky, dark, wet, confusing, and frightening until we get accustomed to it.  But in so doing we are “acceding to mortality” which is to say we are becoming human which culture has offered us a myriad variety of ways to avoid.  But as we embrace our mortality, recognize that death is our ultimate fate…a veritable imprisonment…we can then rise “upon ourselves as the sea in a chasm, struggling to be free and unable to be, in its surrendering find our continuing.”

I have been to the ocean many times and the vivid image of the ocean crashing into those chasms, powerfully and noisily, and then surrendering into calm is so gripping.  And only in this catastrophe do the waves, in surrender, find their “continuing.”

This poem is a beautiful picture of the infinite energy that we are coming to grips with the world of finitude.  Our first impulse is to rail against the limits that we find, even death, but Moore had discovered that in accepting the circumstance of human life she found empowerment. And then there is the powerful observation, “They who feel strongly behave.”  I have seen so many who feel so very strongly that they cannot behave and succumb to a haphazard life which often includes addiction.  I know one young man, for example, who can give expression to his artistic skills only when confined to prison walls and is spending his early adulthood and soon-to-be middle ages in and out of prison.  When there he has found the answer to the famous movie line of Jim Carrey, “SOMEBODY stop me.”

“Satisfaction is a lowly thing.  How pure a thing is joy.”  Moore recognized the pyrrhic victory of immediate gratification.  C.S. Lewis described sin as, “Preference for immediate satisfaction over a ‘believed-in’ pattern of glory.”  The dilemma of modern life…so vividly illustrated in the United States currently…is an obsessive “preference for immediate satisfaction” over the interest of the long-term welfare of the country…and the species.

e e cummings and individuation

The poet, e e cummings declared, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
The world has a primary task, socio-culturally speaking, of homogenizing the “raw-material” of the human “matter” that comes its way as we daily “rattle the world for our babies.”  And yes, our babies are the precious coins that our piggy-banks always have stored up for us though we so often don’t treat them with the respect they are due.  But as our babies begin the task of becoming humanized they find the homogeneity pressure is overwhelming and so often they meekly succumb to the pressure and become mere automatons, following the dictates of the tribe into which they are born.

e e cummings demonstrated in his poetry…and I’m sure in the whole of his life…his determination to “rebel against the machine” and thus we witness the absence of punctuation, capitalization, and often the absence of simple linear thinking.  And I’m made to think of “Bartleby the Scrivener”, the fictional creation of Herman Melville in the 19th century, whose compulsive, “I would prefer not to,” was his standard response to the structured workplace of the burgeoning industrial revolution of his day.

Human life is the daily conflict between the twin poles of a demand to comply with “fitting in” and the equally important need to “individuate.”  A healthy society will call for both but so often an imbalance is seen in which the “fitting in” is so heavily emphasized that little or no room is left for individuation and the tribe is left with a nation of sheep. When that happens, the wisdom of Proverbs 29 is relevant, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” for vision is not possible when group-think (or group “vision”) tyrannizes.

Emily Dickinson and the Unconscious

Today I am following up with further thoughts on a little Emily Dickinson poem that I explored yesterday:

‘Twas such a little—little boat 
That toddled down the bay!
‘Twas such a gallant—gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast—
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost! 

The little boat being swept out to sea is the fragile human ego, always adrift upon the unconscious wash that carries us along, individually and collectively.  The persona that our ego has crafted, i.e. “the boat,” is very fragile and susceptible to being “carried away” too far from the shore and “lost” or even being “sunk” into the abyss of despair.  Our unconscious fears tend to keep us tethered tightly to the comfortable shore which, should we never find the courage to lose sight of for a moment, Jesus posed the famous question, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”  For if we never venture from the shore, we will remain bound to the tribal conventions in which we were born and never discover the Divine potential that was given us at birth, we will never discover the Christ child that lives within.

Tennessee Williams Had Boundary Problems!

Yes he did!  For example, read this thoughtful and provocative wisdom that flowed from his heart, “Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.”

My clinical mind, not quite completely dormant yet, read this and immediately diagnosed, “Porosity of boundaries.”  For this man saw too deeply and felt too deeply and when one is that open he is susceptible to what poet Wallace Stevens described as, “The fatality of seeing things too well.” Life, including relationships must also be lived in a perfunctory manner, on the surface of things, for to dive too far into the depths of life is to risk opening Pandora’s Box.

But my viewpoint of Williams is not as critical as it might seem.  Insight about existential issues requires “boundary problems” otherwise one is confined to living life oblivious to reality, opting to keep on the surface of things. Yes, boundaries are important, even vital, and it is important to be able to maintain involvement and investment in the surface of life even when one’s heart is as open as was Williams’.  And Williams managed to do this, more or less, as he was a successful poet and playwright which usually requires an ability to function in the structure of life and of the art world.  The quoted passage demonstrates what novelist Toni Morrison described as having a heart that was “petal open.”  It was this quality which made his plays so rich and powerful as he was able to reach into the depths of his heart and put on our collective table wisdom that most of us do not have the courage to find on our own.  “The Glass Menagerie” and “Street Car Named Desire” are almost too painful to watch as Williams put human vulnerability right before us and then even rubbed our nose in it!  He put the repressed pain and vulnerability of family life, and of social life as a whole, right before our eyes.

The wisdom of the above quotation is humbling.  We prefer the comfort of being ensconced in our view of the world, including our view of other people including those who we love.  But, Williams displays here the wisdom that W. H. Auden had when he asked the question, “Suppose we love not friends or wives but certain patterns in our lives?”  This same wisdom can be applied to collective experience and pose the question, “Are those ‘bad guys’ actually that bad or are we contributing to their ‘badness’ to accomplish our unacknowledged purposes?  I remember in the 1960’s when the Viet Nam War was raging as my country passionately subscribed to the domino theory about Communist desire to take over the world when now it is quite apparent that there was more to it than we thought.  And what about destroying the Native American culture in the interest of Manifest Destiny only to now see clearly that it was merely an example of “might makes right” so that we were able to accomplish our greedy ends.

Life is complicated.  It is important that we wrestle with the issues that people such as Williams have written about.  But it is also to not make the mistake of taking ourselves too important and allowing the ugliness that is upon us to eat on us to the point of being consumed by bleak despair.  There is always hope.  There is “method to this madness.”  There is “a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invite you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/