Thursday, December 26, 2013

Life of Brian, Death of Saul, Confessions of Augustine

I suppose there are some individual differences even among lesser species, in particular, social animals. But those differences don't amount to much: one dog or gorilla is alpha, and the rest are either contented betas or scheming and resentful opportunists looking for the first sign of weakness.

On Christmas eve we attended a children's mass, in which the priest gave a sermon -- or is it a homily? -- on this very subject. With all the children gathered around him -- at least a hundred, of all different ages -- he distributed puzzle pieces to each of them, in order to bring home the point that every piece is utterly unique, and yet, a necessary part of the whole.

In turn -- he didn't exactly say it this way, but it was my tykeaway -- the whole is Christ, for the second person of the Trinity didn't just become "a" man, but rather, becomes mankind, here and now. Or better, mankind as such is ultimately "the body of Christ," at least in potential. But I'm not sure the children would be able to assimilate it on that abstract a level, for which reason it was transmitted to them in concrete form.

Difference creates tension, as it involves separating oneself from the group, which can be interpreted by the group as aggression, e.g., "rejection," or "superiority." For Rank, the space opened up by difference can often end up being filled by angst, which has a different connotation than anxiety, as it is more existential, or even ontological, in nature. Animals do not experience angst, since it is a direct consequence of individuation, of difference, of standing apart.

Last night I came across a vivid example of angst in the new Beatles biography, having to do with their manager, Brian Epstein. In addition to being homosexual at a time it was still a crime in England, he was just plain different from the rest of his family. He had no interest in joining the successful family business, but rather, was an artistic type, especially drawn to the theatre (there's lots more, but I'm condensing).

Long story short, he received zero support from his exasperated parents, when the very job of a parent is to assist a child in discovering and articulating his identity. Thus, as predicted by Rank, Epstein interpreted his difference in a self-loathing, angst-ridden manner. After his death, an adolescent diary was discovered, in which he had penned the following:

Help me. I am lost. Help me. I am lost. Help me [if] I am to stop. Give me peace, rest. That world, it's too big for me. O Lord God, I've asked these questions before. Where is the answer? Why am I here? Help me. What am I to do? O Lord God tell me where is my faith? Give guidance. This is hell. A hell of madness.

No doubt his homosexual impulses were a factor in his pain, but in this context it is difficult to tell if they are a cause or effect of his identity disturbance -- for clearly, at the root of his trouble was an absolute rejection by his father, which can set the stage for a later search for one's missing masculine identity via sexual relationships.

Thus, in Epstein's case, he spent the rest of his adult life in compulsive pursuit of violent, sado-masochistic homosexual encounters, in a kind of simultaneous attraction to, and rejection by, primitive manhood. And of course, he ended up doing himself in from a drug overdose at the age of 32.

But the suicide (supposedly accidental) was just the concrete expression of a death that had occurred much earlier. Long prior to that, he had been denied permission to be, even (or especially) from earliest childhood. When being is lost that early, it is difficult to recover it, virtually impossible if one doesn't later find an environment to support and nurture it.

So, that's an extreme case, but in psychology, extreme cases are sometimes helpful in illuminating processes that are more subtle in the "normal." You could say that they are somewhat like the microscope is to the biologist. It can be difficult to know what makes human beings tick until they stop ticking, or are prevented from ticking.

I suppose this is no different from how medicine developed. No one gives much thought to their heart, or lungs, or stomach, until something goes wrong with them. But by studying illness, we learn about how to prevent it, and about the proper function of the organ in question.

As we've discussed before, the mind is an organ. Okay, but what is it for? Depending upon your answer, you will have an entirely different conception of man, and of the purpose of life. For a Darwinian, for example, the "purpose" of the mind is adaptation to the environment in furtherance of the Prime Directive, reproduction. Everything else is just genetic window dressing.

Let's forget about tenured fairy tales. What is the mind really for? What I would say is that the mind is an organ for the perception of reality. However, I would add that this involves the perception of both exterior and interior realities. Humanly speaking, the most important interior reality is the self, and the case of Brian Epstein shows what can happen when this perception is systematically thwarted, suppressed, denied, and rejected.

Ironically, Rank traces the emergence of individuality -- i.e., of interior perception -- to the Judeo-Christian revolution, which brought about "a consequent change in the human psychological type" (Menaker). That is,

"The old world of antiquity was disintegrating at this time, and the standards for social conduct were being modified from a communal behavioral code to a more individualistic one. The new code gave the individual more responsibility for his own actions and his destiny than had previously been the case."

This had the added effect of lifting man out of the stream of fate and predestination, "to a plane spiritually much higher":

"The emergence of the idea that through faith and one's own efforts an individual can effect a change in his or her personality is a new development in the psychological history of mankind."

To cite just one dramatic example, "the possibility of a change through inner experience... was testified to by Paul's conversion on the way to Damascus.... It is the juxtaposition of two differing self-experiences that elicits the awareness of both self and of the possibility of change."

Thus, we are ultimately talking about a death-and-life experience -- i.e., the death and rebirth of the self (so much so that he has a new name for the self reborn: Saul is dead. Long love Paul).

It is said that Augustine's Confessions is the first real autobiography ever written. I suppose this would explain why. However, even if we never put pen to paper, we in the Christian west are always cowriting our unique autobiographies -- unless some unholy-ghostwriter is forging our biography with a hammer, gun, or ideology.


julie said...

As we've discussed before, the mind is an organ. Okay, but what is it for? Depending upon your answer, you will have an entirely different conception of man, and of the purpose of life. For a Darwinian, for example, the "purpose" of the mind is adaptation to the environment in furtherance of the Prime Directive, reproduction. Everything else is just genetic window dressing.

With that in mind, I noticed that one of your new books in the sidebar is "The Paleo Manifesto." I'd be curious to see your take on that, if you find you have one. After reading up on various Paleo sites for a few years, my takeaway so far has been that there is some good dietary and lifestyle advice, though possibly based on faulty premises (I just can't buy that human evolution - in the sense of adaptation to exterior circumstances - somehow ceased back in the Stone Age, or even just a century ago), and that many of the most ardent practitioners seem to have a bit of a religious fervor about it all.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I get the impression that most of its followers are either atheistic or live very secular lives. I'm not sure what they think a human should be for, but they are very much against most grains, legumes, and pretty much anything that people might find for a reasonable price at a normal grocery store. Though I've noticed Target seems to carry decently-priced grass-fed ground beef on occasion...

julie said...

And speaking of the Stone Age and crossing the streams of fate and predestination, apparently our furbears knew some very mysterious folk. I wonder if they could have been described as "nephilim"?

Gagdad Bob said...

That book was given a strong recommendation by Taranto, so that's good enough for me. Assuming we have a horizontal and vertical, or lower and higher, nature, I suppose the Paleo stuff would mostly go to the former.

julie said...

Yes, I think so. I do find a lot of the advice to be very helpful, and there are a lot of great recipes.

Now that I think about it, while most of the followers I've seen are secularists, I also get the impression they tend to be either libertarian or conservative. Almost as though it takes the place for secular conservatives that politics and earth worship take for atheist leftists. Which makes a sort of sense, given that the Paleo lifestyle is almost entirely about individual effort and (horizontal) self-improvement...

Gagdad Bob said...

Absolutely. Conservatism starts with what is, whereas liberalism starts with how they wish things were.

ge said...

Ordered a couple of PS's books as Xmas 'seflie' m just came across this: by Keith Ansell-Pearson

PETER SLOTERDIJK MUST BE the most erudite man currently dwelling on the planet. He has fresh and novel insights into whatever he’s discussing at any particular moment. His recently translated book You Must Change Your Life is a tour de force that engages the history of philosophy, religion, and thought, both Western and Eastern, in ways that make you think deeply about the evolution of the human being these past few thousand years...
You Must Change Your Life begins by considering a thesis that has rapidly gained ground in the intellectual and cultural world, namely, that in recent years we have been witnessing, after a godless century, the return of religion and, as a result, intellectuals must reckon seriously with its renewed presence. Are we not now living in a world, the thesis goes, in which the achievements of the Enlightenment show themselves to be so many banalities? From a global 21st-century perspective, couldn’t the Enlightenment simply be seen as an anomaly? Whilst “we in the West” have glorified disillusionment, in the rest of the world there are millions of believers — indeed, the Western glorification of disillusionment may itself qualify as just another kind of belief. Sloterdijk, for his part, finds the “return of religion” thesis superficial — as he does the work of the enemies of religion such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and he proposes a new understanding of what is taking place.

The thesis that religion has returned after the alleged failure of the Enlightenment project needs to be confronted, Sloterdijk argues, with a clearer view of what we can legitimately consider as “spiritual facts.” Such a consideration shows that the return to and of religion is impossible since, so goes Sloterdijk’s initial contention, religion does not, in fact, exist. Instead, what exist are only misunderstood spiritual regimens. All human life requires the cultivation of matters of body and soul, and all philosophies and religions have attended to this fundamental feature of our existence. By this view, any clear-cut dichotomy of believers and unbelievers falls away. In place of this dichotomy, we should distinguish between the practicing and the untrained, or those who train differently.

In one especially illuminating part of the book, Sloterdijk considers the Church of Scientology and the ideas of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard [yay! ge]. With wit and irony, he takes Hubbard to be one of the greatest enlighteners of our times who, albeit involuntarily, increased our knowledge about the nature of religion: “After Hubbard, it is clear once and for all that the most effective way of showing that religion does not exist is to establish one’s own.” In The Art of Philosophy, he points out that the term “religion” is a Christian one that fails to do justice to the Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Jewish, and ancient European philosophical systems of leading one’s life. The ancient schools of philosophy were part of “training cultures” that were focused on the tasks of ethical self-transformation. Their aim was to align human agents to a cosmic order or a divine canon.

Sloterdijk complicates his bold and simple thesis in You Must Change Your Life by acknowledging that something is indeed returning today, though it’s not religion as is commonly supposed....

ge said...

apparently there are a ton of these

[Caution! Laugh til you cry material]

Gagdad Bob said...

ge --

Hey, I 'm half-stuck in the '60s too, but even I knew about der führerbunker gag!

Gagdad Bob said...

And no time for a post today, so blah blah open thread whatever.

ted said...

Someone recently sent me a video of Treya (Ken Wilber's wife who passed on many years ago, and was co-author on his book Grace & Grit) giving a speech about her being terminal with cancer. Whatever you may think of KW, I have to say I was moved by Treya's being in this talk.

ge said...

a little new Camille end a year & assuage truth thirsty souls [she's 'graduated' from talk radio to sports radio for 1 thing]

[apologies at strange computer, or i'd hyperlink]

Rick said...

I don't get the lesbian part. I mean hers. I'm left all sorts of confused about it. Crappy interview or moderate vice?