Category Archives: existentialism

“Making Nice,” Trump, and the Social Contract

Donald J. Trump is a little boy who needs to be loved.  Never having learned the rudimentary dimensions of making himself loveable, he discovered that he had wealth and privilege to manipulate and intimidate people into a pseudo love.  One of the earliest lessons about love takes place when we enter school and find ourselves on the playground where negotiation with others involves a subtly that a child has often not had to deal with before.  The rules of “being liked” are not explicit but depend on an emotional maturity to pick up on the nuances of social life.  I like to think of it as learning to “make nice,” to not say or do the first thing that comes to your mind when you feel slighted.  It involves a tacit agreement to put up with another’s irksome attitudes and behaviors…to some degree…in return for the tacit response of others putting up with yours. This is the nuts-and-bolts of what we call the social contract.

If someone comes along to the playground who will not abide by the terms of this social contract, he will soon be known as a bully.  If you are “ugly and your mom dresses you funny” he is the one who will point it out while others will not say a thing, unconsciously knowing that you will not point out their own flaws and short comings. This reminds me of Trump on the “playground” of the debate stage in 2016 when he was rude and obnoxious, breaking all rules of civility and decorum.  On any debate stage, the candidates usually have a great dislike of others on the stage but there is an unwritten rule to not attack each other personally. Trump stomped all over that rule and as Senator Lindsey Graham put it, “The rest of ran and hid in the corner.”  When faced with a bully, one has a natural response to try to escape.

There is a certain insincerity to, “making nice.”  It is not, “telling it like it is” which Trump avowed and which many of his supporters cited as a reason they liked him.  “He’ll tell the truth, unlike those lying, hypocritical politicians we are used to,” they said.  Yes, but Trump’s “truth telling” is closely akin to that of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome who, severely lacking impulse control, will “tell it like it is,” and announce to a woman he has just met, “My you have a nice set of tits.”  This Tourette’s Syndrome man is certainly saying what nearly all other men are thinking but most of us have a social filter and would not say something like that.  (And I apologize for the “locker-room talk.”  Seriously.)

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Michel Foucault and “Difference” in Contemporary America

Difference matters to me.  I was raised in a conservative, American South culture with religion being the paramount dimension in my particular subculture.  But this upbringing in a rigid, highly structured atmosphere of “us vs. them” troubled me and in my early adulthood I began to acquire a more inclusive, less linear-thinking oriented approach to life.  Now, in the latter stages of my life, the issue of sameness vs. difference is a paramount concern of mine, especially given the political climate in my country and in the world.

Today I stumbled across a book in my library, “The Order of Things” by Michel Foucoult, heavily marked up from my “youthful” enthusiasm of decades past.  In the quote which I will share, Foucoult explores the relationship between “sympathy” (i.e. sameness”) vs. “antinomy” (difference) and the dialogic imperative of an interaction between these two complementary dimensions of the human soul.

Sympathy is an instance of the same so strong and so insistent that it will not rest content to be merely one of the forms of likeness; it has the dangerous power of assimilating, of rendering things identical to one another, of mingling them, of causing their individuality to disappear—and thus rendering them foreign to what they were before.  Sympathy transforms.  It alters, but in the direction of identity, so that if its power were not counter-balanced it would reduce the world to a point, to a homogeneous mass, to the featureless form of the same:  all its parts would hold together and communicate with one another without a break, with no distance between them, like those metal chains held suspended by sympathy to the attraction of a single magnet.

But then Foucault presents “antipathy” as the opposite life-force, equally necessary, which seeks to counter the otherwise stultifying power of the demand for sameness.  What he calls “antipathy” is merely a drive for difference, an innate desire to not be swallowed by the whole of sameness, a “whole” which would be merely a “black hole” without consideration of this “antipathy” or difference.  Foucault declares:

Sympathy is compensated by its twin, antipathy.  Antipathy maintains the isolation of things (i.e. the difference, the desire and demand for independence) and prevents their assimilation; it encloses every species within its impenetrable difference and its propensity to continue to being what it is.

This notion of continuing “to being what it is” is an essential dimension of identity, an ability to “hang onto” a core of what/who one is even when beset by the challenges of difference.  With maturity, i.e. “ego integrity,” one can hang onto a core of who one is even as he negotiates with difference, (i.e. “antipathy”) and knowing that he can survive…and even thrive…with the benefit of “difference” (i.e. something new) into its mindset.

Poet Stanley Kunitz offered wisdom re this inner-core, this essence of who we are:

The Layers
BY STANLEY KUNITZ
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

 

Emily Dickinson and the Imprisonment of Specious Truth

The subject of truth continues to fascinate me with the term “fake news” becoming synonymous with any viewpoint that does not fit with ours.  Truth appears increasingly to be very relative with no real standard being applicable.  Oh sure, I’m a “relativist” myself but then I continue to believe in some basic standard of veracity which, should I breach it, I would evoke some sense of shame and an attempt to apologize.

But the wonderful 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson knew that it was possible for the human soul to select its constituent elements and fashion a private, “society” that would be, “proof and bulwark” (borrowing a term from Shakespeare) against truth.  She was a keen observer of the human situation in her day and noted how people tended to create a very private reality for themselves, congregate with like-minded souls, and then repel any contrary viewpoint.  Here is how she put it:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

Note that Dickinson observed that after constructing this autistic shell of a world view, the individual would, “shut the door” and then assume a “Divine majority,” that is assuming a Divinity to which nothing could be “presented” any more.  She knew that at this point an individual had said, in the depths of his heart, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with facts.”

But often in this closed-minded world, Dickinson knew that Truth often visited and “kneeled at her low-gate,” bidding for admission.  But she had already pledged her troth to a particular viewpoint and “closed the valves of her attention like stone.”  The imagery of valves of attention, “closing like stone” is powerful, evoking an auditory image of the gates of attention clanging shut with finality.  When one has barricaded him/herself into a prison of specious certainty, and labeled it Truth, there is no way for those chariots that are always passing by to breach the force-field it faces.  The poison that results inside such a prison always makes me think of Westboro Baptist Church, David Koresh and his disciples, and Jim Jones and the Jonestown, South Africa disaster.

W. H. Auden offered relevant wisdom, “And Truth met him, and held out Her hand. And he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

Faith and Truth, per Carl Sandburg

 

WHO AM I?
By: Carl Sandburg

MY head knocks against the stars.
My feet are on the hilltops.
My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of 
universal life.
Down in the sounding foam of primal things I
reach my hands and play with pebbles of 
destiny.
I have been to hell and back many times.
I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God.
I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible.
I know the passionate seizure of beauty

And the marvelous rebellion of man at all signs
reading “Keep Off.”
My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive 
in the universe.

All of us have a body of thought rattling around our skull which constitute “truth” and is taken for granted.  This is a necessary, though in a sense specious, certainty that allows us to function in our consensually-validated reality.  But within the noisy “rattling around” in our skull, there are certainties and premises that need to be examined occasionally and Sandburg was telling us this is especially so with those posted with the sign, “Keep Off.”  Sandburg did not mean there are no “Keep Off” dimensions to our heart and mind but that we need to pay attention to this signage and occasionally entertain the notion, “Well, maybe I should look at that idea a little further?”  This is related to my often-cited favorite bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  One simple little example from my youth in central Arkansas was the certainty that blacks were inferior to whites.  There was no need to question it for it was a definite, and, “The Bible said it.”

I have watched so many truths fall by the wayside in my life time and have long since given up any faint belief that I own the truth, that at best there is some primordial Truth that lies beyond the grasp of our finite mind and that yes, in a sense that “Truth” even has us!  And if I ever start trying to explain that to you, flash the sign of the cross in my face and run away quickly as this is a matter that eludes the grasp of human cognition.  This “Truth” involves faith, but not of the escapist faith that is so common, but faith that there is a, “Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may,” as Shakespeare told us.  And I personally think that those who are the most obnoxious about objectively knowing about that end…and usually the end for others…are doing the roughest hewing!

Clinging to Guns & Religion, “Part Deux”!!

Religion, like guns…as explored in my last post… is a contrivance but one that is a Divine intervention if we find the courage and humility to reach maturity and slough off the “letter of the law” dimension and wrestle with “the flesh,” the term the Apostle Paul used to describe the abysmal baggage of human-ness that we seek to avoid.   The word religion stems from, “re-ligio” which means “to bind together,” reflecting the human wisdom that we are a divided soul and need to be reunited with our self.  But this reuniting is painful as “the Fall” into human cognition, necessary for the creation of human culture, created us delightful…to a fault… personas that we are fearful of laying aside and allowing reunification with our inner Essence so that S/he can have expression.  We don’t realize that if we find the courage to go through the “crucifixion” necessary for this resurrection our persona will not be destroyed but merely integrated with our inner essence, giving the buried “Christ child” a chance to find expression in the form of a fully functioning authentic human being. But the “clinging to religion” that Obama recognized (see last post) gets in the way of the life process, individually and collectively.  And it is no accident that God—we find the perfect symbol for power and authority.  The ego has found a perfect expression to assert itself and with the slogan, MAGA, our country has found a mantra to energize a desire to return to past imperialistic glory.

“Clinging” in itself is central to the problem.  There is a popular bromide, “Love holds with an open hand.”  But in some circles, especially the conservative culture in which I was raised, “clinging” is an essential dimension of faith, illustrated in the classic hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross” with the line, “So we’ll cling to the old Rugged Cross….”  This is a stage of faith, very much related to a developmental stage in which we “cling” to our momma until maturity allows us to diminish the “clinging” and relax into a more open trusting with relationship with our Source.  This usually corresponds increasing trust in and with our very self, with others, and even life itself as we relax into the “loving embrace” of the One who “shaped us from our mothers womb.  Reminds me of the Old Testament wisdom, “Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You. For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well.…”

Where There is No Vision, the People Perish.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Heard this often in my youth and realize now that referred to those who don’t see and understand the world as I did at that time.  There is vision and then there is “vision” and learning this lesson requires as step one, realizing that at very best we “see” through a glass darkly.  To put that in more human terms, we “see” only in accordance to a deep-seated need to “see” the world that we are accustomed to.  For example, in my youth in the state of Arkansas, I clearly saw that “Negroes” were not as intelligent and virtuous as were white people.  “It is obvious,” I’m sure I told myself.  What I failed to understand then is the dictate from my culture which mandated that I saw “Negroes” in this way and that seeing them in such a manner fulfilled my personal and tribal need to have someone that was beneath me on the social ladder; they were “the other” in my early life.  The irony of that was that my family was close to the bottom of the ladder itself the first decade or so of my life when those values were being imprinted.

Obtaining vision requires a capacity for paradox, realizing that we see only when we realize that we don’t see, that we see “only through a glass darkly.”  This paradoxical capacity introduces us to the experience of “the other” and awareness of our existential loneliness.  We are all very much alone in this world and it is only through the illusions of cultural contrivance, the object world, that we can superficially connect with others and pretend that we have connection.  And this “pretense” serves a very useful function in this very necessary world of appearance; but it is only when we venture beneath the surface, beyond the pretenses of our persona, and flirt with what W. H. Auden described as the, “unabiding void,” that we can enter the meaningful realm of spirit in which a more genuine connection is possible.  You might even say that our tippy-toeing near or into the void, “scares the hell of us”….or it least it can…as hell is living one’s whole life on the surface, failing to answer the famous question of Jesus, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul; or, what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

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AN AFTERTHOUGHT — What prompted this post is a story in The Economist about the state of Oklahoma and its egregious lack of vision.  Their “lack of vision” so closely parallels the obscurantism of the Republican Party in my country. Here is a link to that story:

https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21736102-low-teacher-pay-and-severe-budget-cuts-are-driving-schools-brink-whats-matter

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!”