January 29th, 2007

the-gi het-gi gi-het(heat) get-hi hit-eg


Once we have settled the general problem of where man fits into the scheme of things, the plot of our action begins to thicken. None of us is satisfied with “general man”; each of us is a particular being, and as such finds the mystery of our identity hard to come by. As William James once said of the lowly crab: “Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. `I am no such thing,` it would say; `I am MYSELF, MY-SELF alone.`”1

1 As William James Said: A Treasury of His Work, ed. Elizabeth Perkins Aldrich (New York: Vanguard Press, 1942) p. 27.

One of the most trying experiences of our time is simply the torment and agony of trying to find ourselves, to locate the intrinsic reality of our being, or, in the ancient jargon now largely forgotten and disdained, to know ourselves as souls. We are caught in a world of shadows, of shifting re-flections and distortions, and we seem to have little or no substance. We assume the most heroic postures, we make the most passionate gestures, but we ourselves are not convinced. Whatever the reason, we have come to a time when the sense of self has evaporated.
No problem of our problem-racked age has disturbed or fascinated the artist of the last three centuries more, and in the years since the Second World War the desperate anguish of the search is plainly visible to any who run and read. Shakespeare and Goethe raise the issue with Hamlet and Faust, Racine and Molière continue it with a gallery of por-traits, Melville and Ibson move into the thunderous catastro-phes of Ahab and The Master Builder-all of them searching for what is personally authentic in the mystery of human beings.
If you turn to your own epoch, Beckett and Camus, Kafka and Genêt, Ionesco and Sartre are haunted by the self they cannot find. The touch of reality has vanished, and the world turns into something like a bad dream, even a nightmare. “Homer`s heroic world,” says MacLeish, “where men could face their destinies and die, becomes to us . . . the absurd world of Sartre, where men can only die.” In the painted images of men and their sculptured counterparts, reality is hard to find. In the works of deKooning, Céaser, Dubuffet, or in Paolozzi, Oliveira, Richier, man is no longer man but mean, ogreish, scrofulous, repulsive, hollow, junky, de-monic.
The forces are not hard to find. We are inordinately proud of our pluralistic society, which cannot help but breed pluralis-tic people. Such people will be collections of many little pieces insecurely held together. Whatever soul is left in such a jumble, it will hop-skip like a one legged child from square to square-now on this, now on that, first aesthetic, then reli-gious, then political-or perhaps from home to club to office to church, without coming down anywhere on both feet firmly planted on the solid earth. We have learned how to have an education, but not to be educated; the have a church but not to be religious; and so on.
The truth is, we have an astonishing ability to change roles quickly. Think of Moreau in Flaubert`s Sentimental Educa-tion, who never does find the core of himself under the long series of changing affairs and shifting vocations; or of Ibsen`s Peer Gynt, who complains of himself that he is like and onion, all layers and no kernel; or of Musil`s Man Without Qualities, who is forever neutral, floating invisibly in the transparent culture of the world.
Sartre is unequivocal about it: we are forever acting as if we were something, a waiter or a father, pour soi, but only when we are dead are we en soi. For him there is no human nature to find, no intrinsic reality as such. The search for authenticity is futile.
The pluralistic society begets the pluralistic person; that is, the person forever caught in a hall of mirrors. Such an en-vironment becomes what Eliot calls “distraction from distrac-tion by distraction.” We learn to live by externalizing our-selves, by acquiring an assortment of convenient marks. We attach ourselves to whatever passes by, in the hope that reality can be affirmed outside. Something of this escape from the embarrassing problems of man is manifested by the comtem-porary artist, who has completely eschewed man`s image and indulges himself either in Mondrian`s purity of line, or in Kandinski`s color, or in Pollack`s barbed-wire entanglements.
The focus of historic revolutions (through which we have become self-conscious) in the long development of the Renais-sance is registered uncomfortably within us. We suffer the impact far within the sensitive brain, the aching heart. We are the wanderers in the mazes of the brain, in the vagrant moods of the mind, in the fears and furies of passion. We have plent of maps but no compass; we have energy but we lack direction; we run in all directions, and with enthusiasm, but have no center. Somewhere, somehow, we need to find the equivalent of the soul. Then we might be sure of ourselves, with solid ground for our feet. As Wallace Stevens puts it,

Is this picture of Picasso`s this “hoard
Of destructions,” a picture of ourselves,

Now, an image of our society?
Do I sit, deformed, a naked egg,

Catching at Good-bye, harvest moon,
Without seeing the harvest or the moon?

Things as they are have been destroyed.
Have I? AmI a man that is dead

At a table on which the food is cold? 2

2 From “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, p. 173.
The question we must ask is: How shall we find this au-thentic reality of ourselves? We might ask, rather profitably perhaps, how we came to lose it. One thing can be discerned. We became less and less real to ourselves the more we built up illusions and optimistic grandeur, of the infinite possibilities of our goodness, or our limitless power and knowledge. These vast and airy perfections led us into alluring unrealities which world wars and atom bombs, economic revolutions and con-centration camps shockingly dispelled, leaving us shattered and ashamed. The simple truth is what the ancients-Greek or Hebrew-knew: man is born of tragic stuff; his dreams are woven with deviltry and his highest hopes are rooted in the darkest depths. Until we know this, we know nothing. This is the intrinsic nature of our freedom; in this condition of anxious choice we live and have our being; until we are rec-onciled to this beginning, we do not make a beginning. We are real in our division and in the consciousness of our di-vision-where we painfully hold together the contradictions of good and evil, love and hate, spirit and body; where we are humbled by the scandal of our many-leveled selves and intensified by such creative dynamics. This is the inevitable discomfort in our acknowledgment of being souls, an ac-knowledgment which embraces many contradictions and makes possible the rich synthesis of a whole man.
I cannot leave this first tortured and torturing thread of soul without stressing it, for everything in us tends to revolt from it. We shut our eyes before it, our brains refuse to think it, and all the habits and traditions of optimistic America are against it. I can only remind you of the ancient myth of Oedipus:

The wretched, unhappy, humbled, hurt old king, badgered and abused by fate, gulled by every trick the gods can play on him, tangled in patricide and incest and every guilt, snarled in a web of faithful falsehoods and affectionate deceptions and kind lies, exiled by his own proscription, blinded by his own hands, who, dying, has so great a gift to give that Thebes and Athens quarrel over which shall have him.
“I am here,” says Oedipus to Theseus, King of Athens, “ “to give you something, my own beaten self, no feast for the eyes.” 3

3 From “The Gift Outright” by Archibald MacLeish, in The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1964, p, 52.

It is not an accident that the religious revelation of Chris-tianity in reference to the nature of the ideal man is the figure of the crucified one.
Let me move from the first mystery of our reality to the second, namely, that we only possess ourselves in the lives of others. If we are deprived of our relationships, we are deprived of our reality. To be completely alone is to be completely null and void. The authentic nature of human reality. Cannot be utterly individualized. The further we tend toward the isola-tion of the individual, the more insupportable life becomes. Meaning vanishes in all forms of solitary confinement. Where there is less and less to be communicated, or where we lose the common vocabulary and are obstructed by elaborate specializations and professional jargon, where our social life is grounded in a technical web and not in emotional heri-tage, the reality of human life fades out, grows thin, and fails to provide society with its cohesive power.
Nowhere is this made plainer than in the French Theatre of the absurd, In Samuel Beckett`s Watts, Watts seeks to find someone who remembers him, remembers anything-his name, where he lives, things he did or suffered, or people he knew. “`But you must know something,` said Mr. Hackett, `One does not part with five shillings to a shadow. Nationality, family, birthplace, confession, occupation, means of existence, distinctive signs, you cannot be in ignorance of all this.` `Utter ignorance,` said Mr. Nixon.” 4

4 Paris: Olympia Press, 1953

Only in such a way could he recover his reality or be real to himself. Once the communal base is lost, the reality of the self, which is so intrinsically social, vanishes into thin air. I am “we” before I am “I,” and if it connate maintain the essential we, the I does not last very long. My ego, as Auden suggests, is born in another`s need, not my own.
There is a very poignant story in the Gospels which illus-trates the matter. Jesus, walking through a crowded street, was hard pressed by the people. Among them was a woman who managed to touch the hem of his garment and was healed; and the scripture says he felt the strength leave him. All of us are in need of another`s strength; all of us reach toward one another out of an intrinsic demand; all of us are healed, made whole, our authenticity confirmed, by the touch of another.
It is a sad fact in our sophisticated world that one of the simplest conditions of life has been so obscured that it cannot be spoken of with directness and honesty. I want to say that love authenticates the reality of the human being, but the word has been covered with cheap bangles, neon lights, stupid vulgarities, unclean sentimentalities and innumerable deceits. But if you can cleanse your vision and look simply and feel deeply, you will know that it is only when the reality of another person becomes more real to you than your own being, becomes nearer to you than you are to yourself, that the reality of your own self becomes indubitably, painfully, joyously real. Love in the revelation of our essential selves as intrinsically real. Love is the revelation of our essential selves as intrinsically social, validated by our relationships. Love is the epiphany of our reality as human beings.
We have said that we begin with the authentic self when we go back to its irrefutable brokenness. We have advanced to say that reality is not so much in us as between us. And, finally, our authenticity is born in those moments when we break through to something beyond us. Men come to them-selves when they transcend themselves, forget their self-con-cern, and sell everything they have for this one pearl of great price. We shall never find the self as long as we fiddle with it, protect it, pamper it, mount guard over it, throw up ram-parts around it, wrap it up, bury it like a hoarded talent. No, the authentic note of human reality is freedom, freedom ex-pressed and boldness and faith, with rick and daring, with exuberance and sheer delight. Find something somewhere so excessively beautiful, so exquisitely true, so gallantly good that your are immediately transported beyond yourself, and then you begin to be real. In a sense we are not real in ourselves but in ourselves only shut up and hemmed in, and in that most unnaturally. We are real as persons when, like catalysts, we elicit from the world its hidden fire and find ourselves con-sumed, yet validated, our reality certified. Moses or Augustine, Paul or Luther, Poincairé or Einstein, Stevens or Rilke or Faulkner-all alike point outside themselves. It is never otherwise. Only beyond us is our reality made plain; beyond us is the place where we are authentic. Perhaps this is what Thoreau meant when he implored us to “explore our higher altitudes.”
What I have suggested is not an easy order. To recover the sense of our authentic selves will not be a casual stroll in a pleasant park but rather a tensed, precarious climb over danger-ous cliffs. The time is stormy and the tide is not running smoothly for those who seek the soul. The fashion is to avoid all danger by splashing in the shallows, and then to complain that there is no buoyancy in life. The world may exhaust us, and that right quickly; its rewards and frenzy are not as deep as our hunger. The pretty little noises we make,, the glittering light on the sparkling spray, scarcely hide the silly pathos of our sad and empty hearts. We were made for some-thing better and we know it and long for it. But that means reach, however clumsily, to the redemptive power of love, and by faith to see beyond ourselves what we cannot derive from ourselves.