California Literary Review

Crossing Styx


October 30th, 2007 at 10:17 am

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[Photograph courtesy of Daneli Photography]

You’re safe inside the movies
where everyone has his place
in the night among the stars
and voices and music play
what you want to know again
and you see yourself alive
doing what the others do.

from “The Mad,” a poem (1964)

The Self. The Self? The denotation of the word, Self, remains what it was in its ancient Sanskrit form. Today’s dictionary defines Self as that which distinguishes one person from another; as personality, character, individuality; as an individual’s consciousness of being, or of its own identity; as its subjectivity; its ego; its own interests, welfare, advantage; its personal or private concerns.

Although these lexical definitions may sound like the absolute givens of human nature, at this juncture in the history of the West, and looking back at the cataclysmic episodes of creation and destruction marking the vicissitudes of the past two centuries, it could be asserted that such terms seem no longer immutable, let alone assured whether philosophically or psychologically. Indeed, they may no longer be assumed an adequate adumbration of a human being. To paraphrase T.S.Eliot, “After such knowledge, what hope?”

A Brief Account of the Decay of Selfdom

The Twentieth Century opened with an intuition of the Self as a unique existent, an absolute singularity subsisting amongst others, or in solitude, or in alienation, depending on one’s social or political Weltanschauung. The Self had been treated as a numerable thing, an object imagined by Eighteenth Century economic notions as an item to be statistically manipulated in market analysis. It was still regarded in 1900 as something “solid,” just as identifiable as the recently-modeled atom of the physicists. Yet, at the very same time, even that modern conception of Self as an independent, individual person was also thought a rather dubious formulation. And, if there is one place where its presumed substantiality was put into serious question, it was in the Vienna of over a century ago.

More than ten decades have passed since Sigmund Freud’s THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS was published in 1899. His hypotheses and discoveries have gone through many critical wringers, and his teaching has resulted in a wide variety of therapeutic elaborations. Basically his effort was an attempt to delineate the construction of the Self, to describe its dynamics, the processes of its formation, the phases and vicissitudes of its work, as it labors toward substantiation in everyday experience. We have learned that the Self is a process in time, history, memory and its loss; it is as much intra-psychic as interactive with other Selves and their invented institutions: Family and Society. The individual, as psychoanalysis understands the case, struggles incessantly to realize a Selfhood that seems forever beyond attainment, since its becoming is problematical from womb to tomb, even under the most propitious of circumstances. We have always understood that even the profoundest works of art do not propose real selves, but merely imagined models that may be contained momentarily within the person, but never do contain the person. Moreover, no creations of human beings have withstood the analysis of “reality” that Freud established. His last thoughts — MOSES AND MONOTHEISM, CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS, THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION — were meant to be his contribution to civilization. Skeptical and pessimistic, those metapsychological monographs were immediately perceived as devastating to human hopes, necessarily bred in the teeming swamp of our illusions. So it remains after 107 years. Everything we are is by its very nature to be understood simply as human; perhaps, in Nietzsche’s words, merely all-too human.

What Sort of Lights Did Freud’s Work Shed after 1899?

Everything flows, said Heraclitus; nothing is ever the same. For the sake of discussion, let’s accept the universe of psychoanalytical discourse in which an understanding of the Self argues for the historicist perspective. That demands a relativism that sees civilizations and cultures as braiding the strands of the experience of varying generations over centuries to produce a chain of transpersonal stereotypes. Those characters are the models of Selfhood imposed upon or provided by all societies to each person. Psychoanalysis recognized, for instance, the conflict between the always-fortuitous contingencies impacting upon the individual’s innate process that is development of a Self. It was promptly recognized as constituting a subversive element per se, even threatening to deliver a mortal blow to the absolutes of Religion and the State; that is, to the practice of any particular cult. As for Humanism, a mainly secularist philosophy, an ineluctable obstacle is posed by Freud’s theory of a developing Self that cannot be realized, let alone “completed” over a lifetime. In any case, whatever were the hopes of Western Humanism, secular or religious, they were forever demolished, although not by psychoanalysis alone, which the chains of catastrophes throughout the 20th Century amply demonstrated.

The habit of stereotyping and cataloguing an individual’s character is perhaps as old as humankind itself. People usually have been defined according to their situation in groups, their social locations prescribed by age, gender, function, aptitudes, behavior, and so on. Language itself abstracts such categories and reifies them, so that a personality (stereo)type was what the individual incorporated and projected from earliest childhood. The mechanism is identification, and identification would appear to be universal, the primordial psychic mechanism.

The presumption of solidity, of a stable thing called personality that differentiates all individuals, has long been fixed in Western thought. Despite the ingrained, unexamined belief in the Self as Self-same, so to speak, that such might not be the case seems to have forced itself only gradually on Freud. He had of course in youth seen in Charcot’s clinic and in his own early treatment of hysterical patients that the Self is scarcely co-extensive with the person. At first, Freud ventured to suppose that there might even have occurred some sort of “evolutionary” change in people over the millenia. He clung for a while to the hope that possibly biological mutation would explain the loss, even the extinction, as he saw it, of the unself-conscious innocence that once took joy in living itself, an outlook that seemed to him the mark of the Classic Mediterranean world’s pagan exuberance. In suggesting that his contemporaries might essentially be different from people of the Classical epoch, he may have been expressing the perennial ideal of a lost Arcadia or Eden. What prevailed, however, was his view that personality is mostly a process of formation through the interplay of libido and circumstance, that is, Nature and Nurture. Of course, he had to abandon that fable, because he was already creating the hypothesis of the Oedipal stage of growth, preparing himself to look Medusa in her face; he was descending into the inner life of the Self’s adolescent passage, its malformations, perversions, inhibitions, and analyzing the etiology of the neurotic personality revealed in the sexual life of his patients. Freud’s later stoic pessimism describes the Self in terms of conflict as much intra-psychic as interactive with other Selves past and present, as a struggle with their inherited creations, as the agon of Person, Family, and Society. Perhaps there is never any possibility of a “normal” development for human beings, since the norm itself is a figment.

What Sort of Shadows Were Inevitably Cast by those Lights?

In any case, in the various Western societies in which the psychoanalytical study of human personality has more or less taken root, the thing once called Self was at the same time subjected to attack. The Self has suffered degradation and systematic destruction by powers vested not only in certain persons, but in nations increasingly dominated and shaped by such persons. It is horrible even to contemplate how power possessed by a few individuals has controlled and in various parts of the globe still controls whole nations through means ranging from brutal force, the arbitrary remaking of all social relations, to the application of exquisitely-refined technology. Such power was never dreamt of by king or despot. During the Twentieth Century, control was exercised on a scale so overwhelming that the individual became less significant than a gnat is to an elephant. In short, ours has been and may well continue to be the epoch of warfare against the Self that Freud attempted to delineate, understand, and by means of therapy assist towards the realization of an individuality characterized not only by autonomous rationality, but actual self-possession. Anxiety today pervades the world: it is scarcely coincidental that the twin shibboleths of Democracy and Capitalism are broadcast unceasingly, as if to ward off the looming threat of absolute control, as though resurrected from the distant past, now reincarnated in recognizably archaic theist and socialist programs, the enduring structures of unreason and false reason intended always to bind each and all in unbreakable shackles.

Totalitarianism, perhaps the great modernist adventure of the last century, was not merely directed against “Humanity,” as today’s sentimental cant prefers to put it. From the outset, the radical project of the totalitarians aimed at a goal that could only be realized by waging war against the individual, purposing to obliterate the Self. It was camouflaged as a species of socialism, based upon a revolution of proletariats, which never were informed by parties that their victory would lay the foundation for societal constructions by which to fuse Family and Society. Fascist, Nazi and the Communist theory and practice are evidence of an intention to replace the entire inheritance of evolutionary history by a command structure very forcibly imposing a timeless, collectivist system of Nurture, expressed by George Orwell in a ghastly metaphor: the hobnailed boot pressing forever on the human face. It is hardly accidental that psychoanalysis was anathema to revolutionaries of all stripe, since the motivations of the idealist as well as the criminal are promptly reduced to merest problematic through its analytical method.

The Perdurable Technology of the Totalitarians

If the deliberate, totalist campaign against the Self — which extended to the physical obliteration of whole categories of people — seems to have been dissipated almost but not quite everywhere today like the nightmare it was, does that mean we’re no longer imperiled? One hears rumors of the emergence of a “new world order,” a concept masked by “globalization.” And that, despite the obvious descent into chaos of whole regions in Africa and South America today. If such a novelty were to materialize beneath the sun — call it a new democratic world order — as is envisioned as the logical effect of “market economics” (as currently advertised by some Western leaders), is there any reason for those who have always dealt with the Self, writers in particular, to suppose it will also provide a favorable environment for the cultivation of “Self”? None at all. Unhappily, there may be better reasons to fear that the future will manifest quite the contrary result. Not that Literature (with its capital “L”) will not retain its power to conceive and project imagined possibilities. As has always been its inherent talent, its fictions are formative for the potential Self. But now it is becoming plain that Literature is locked in a deadly, perhaps fatal contest with another “species,” so to term it, of fictions: I mean, the fictions offered by the Media. Our melancholy question now is: Which fictions are — well, there is no other word — true? Which fictions are, so to say, the “real” ones?

Some psychoanalysts are aware that the danger signs are clearly posted for us to read (at least, insofar as therapeutic practice may be concerned). They have been learning that their contemporary patients’ psychic life is predominantly composed of a pastiche of layer upon fleeting layer of conscious and unconscious fantasy selves, derived from saturation in the Media since earliest childhood. Since we are by now quite experienced as to the nature of the universe presented by the Media, it suffices to remark that, although its offerings may be far more various, phenomenologically speaking, than the forms of communication available before the advent of broadcasting around 80 years ago, it is anything but rational or systematic in its influence on the formation of an individual’s psychic architecture. It is also ubiquitously present today, radiating to everyone from hospital cradle to hospital deathbed. Furthermore, while it often includes many traditional genres of dramatization, it does so in much-reduced formats. Certainly, as compared to the written word, the forms of the Media are also drastically reductive. Not that any one presentation is necessarily confused; the opposite is the case, since skilled technique articulates the content of every second. Nevertheless, the Media are experienced daily for hours over many years as an absolutely unstructured, incoherent, and, by any rational analysis of reality, all but chaotic whole. Furthermore, the world into which the Media is woven is part and parcel of the social phenomenon described in famous detail by Nobelist Elias Canetti in his most important book, CROWDS AND POWER [1960]. It was first recognized by the term Mass Man.

Massification in Mass Society: A Paved World of Cities

From a psychoanalyst’s point of view, the consequences of the formation of Mass Man are profound. At the close of the Nineteeth Century, the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins intuited them, and cried metaphorically, “Nor can foot feel, being shod.” No longer operative, let alone meaningful, are all the identifications with those fictive persons immanent in a culture’s hoard of venerable archetypes, those long-established cultural models out of which the individual’s fantasy life was once upon a time composed. From a writer’s point of view, the consequences are profoundly unsettling. It’s not simply a matter of competition with the Media for the attention of an audience. Instead, it’s become a question whether communication is possible with persons whose judgment of reality in no way resembles that of people who lived before our era of Mass Man, people whose imagination responded to what fictions once were. Furthermore, what sort of communication is it? Certainly what seems to have been severely decreased by television viewing is people’s cognition of the real and the irreal — although not as a result of what they watch on the screen! What happens to children is that they usually pass from believing that everything presented by television is real to a later conviction that “nothing is real.” In other words, the world has become crowded, permeated and possessed by the fictive.

On the other hand, from the psychoanalytic perspective, fictions are part of the process by which we invent our reality, a reality that includes other real persons. It seems, according to some practitioners, that those persons fall ill who lack an inner, secret, perhaps scarcely-conscious narrative peculiar to themselves; their own history, past and present is unwritten, lacking or fails them; they are unable to make up a wished-for future, and are stopped by neurosis, fating themselves to go over and over, to repeat the past episodes that are termed trauma, from the German “traum” for a dream, instead of forgetting and developing a present life that sees itself directed towards some distant, if unforeseeable end. Their story is not a story; in short, not even a fiction. Whereas fictions, it may be said, do not stimulate life; they are a source of life, without which there is nothing. From the writer’s perspective, today’s question is, By whose fictions are we narrated? The answer comes, the fictions of the Media, which are fictions per se, whether what is shown is drama, simulated action, “raw and unedited” “actuality,” or even non-fictional but prepared replaying, whether news or documentation or instruction, even a guided stroll through an art gallery. The very recording of some quotidian event moment by moment becomes fiction when “replayed.” The problem also is, What kind of fictions? The answer inexorably is: Fictions parallel to yet incommensurate with reality, because the only “reality” viewers brought up in the television age have incorporated into their psychic life is that of the replayed, endlessly replicated fictive “reality” of Media presentations. Yes, the Medium is the Message, and the message nothing but fictive. The simulacra or exact facsimile of anyone captured by a webcam, say, hour by hour during an ordinary day may be termed basic narration, or “brut,” raw, to use a term from the wine shop; but it offers nothing whatever of the Self, which in all its timeworn definitions and aspect is always and only interior. That interiority is what is missing in the recorded life of Media. And drama itself is the acting or pretense of actions and speech. Yet most pretended speech is of course about what we call thoughts or feelings, sketches or outline dots of the ineffable of existence. Perhaps it was not recognized as criticism when it first was shown, but Andy Warhol’s 24-hour movie, SLEEP [which was not that, of course, but a 35-minute loop of a Beat poet, John Giorno] revealed the metaphor that exposes the utter vacuity of a recording of merest existence. Ironically, the sleeping subject’s name, Giorno, means “day” in Italian; so one watched, if one did, a day supposedly occurring at night, though perforce illuminated by the light needed to film the record. If it was criticism, it was utterly self-destructive of itself and any pretence that “reality” was exhibited.

The Question of Meaning Has Been Asked, and the New Millennium Must Abide Its Answer

Well over a half-century ago, the philosopher Martin Buber may well have summed up the disaster of that entire 20th Century when he wrote words that convey the writer’s dilemma today. Believing that the world should be “…a dwelling place of the spirit,” he asked, “But what does that word signify? What can it mean in an age which calls every facile babbler a representative of the spirit and which at bottom seems to have no choice except to see in the life of the spirit either a highly-developed means of combat or of amusement?”

Writers since Homer presumed that the audience (later the reader) is another “real” person with a “real” Self. In our time that “real” self is no longer the kind of “real” Self it seems to have been in the past; certainly not that Self proposed just yesterday by Freud and his followers. Their conception of the Self was that of an autonomous, integrated, mature being. But in today’s societies, populated increasingly by people with fantasy personalities, personalities formed and developed through the agency of the fictions offered them by the Media, that ideal Self may be a possibility excluded and lost. In short, it seems rather a tenuous proposition at best that the way towards achievement of Self remains perpetually open. Even today’s political and economic freedoms offer little ground for such expectation. Rather, as I would suggest, the contrary is the case. The Media that so influenced the Twentieth Century have been extending their reach throughout the globe. In this young Twenty-First Century, their effects will saturate the world’s populations. Any child anywhere in possession of a mere handheld device may think itself an individual because words and images can be captured and transmitted instantaneously; yet that child is already sunk into fictive solipsism. One thinks of the irony that a philosopher like Thomas Hobbes might delight in, were he alive to write a New Leviathan. With the foreseeable oppression of Mass Man’s massified society, our life will not be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, as he imagined it was in “the state of nature.” Rather, life will be solitary (in-crowds); well-off (relatively); mean-tempered; and spaced-out; cruelly careless and withal long-lived — the better to drink despair with every breath, and to wonder, What are these black, depthless waters over which we drift towards to some unknown shore?

  • Sheila Banani

    Dear JK,

    Please do not “drink despair with every breath,” as cogently expressed as your essay is. I believe that our “true self” is the life of the spirit,”the ineffable of existence,” or as in your quote from Buber, the world should be “a dwelling place of the spirit.” I believe that “true life” (the life of our souls) occurs in this world for a brief time and continues on eternally in “other worlds” of God.

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