Thursday, November 27, 2008

THE INFINITY OF THE SELF


Why are we so interested in each other? The theory of egoism would seem to suggest that we are only interested in ourselves as individuals, in number one; and there is some truth in that. But it is not the whole truth. Far from it! The more exclusive our concentration upon ourselves, the more dissatisfied we become. The more selfless we become, the more fulfilled we are as persons. We find ourselves ultimately sterile and uninspiring if we cannot compare ourselves to others and act upon the comparison. Essentially what interests us is the contrast between ourselves and others. And our interest in that contrast is infinite. Why are we so interested in everyone? (That is to say, insofar as we as persons have not succumbed to the terrible, creeping paralysis of what Kierkegaard called ‘spiritlessness’, what could also be called ‘functionalisation’.) It is because our interest in others is infinite. It is because the universal is the principal intellectual category of interest to us; and this is true when we think of ourselves or when we think of known individuals. We are as creatures capable of imagining ourselves as fulfilling all the potential of the whole human race; and indeed we can only be interested in ourselves insofar as we see ourselves as possessing this capability. When we resign ourselves to being a tiny, limited, local, parochial individual, with just this small set of capabilities and just this small range of experience, we begin to sink into spiritlessness. It may, indeed, not be a question of resignation at all, but sometimes merely of self-satisfaction. When we identify ourselves with just this one function, just this one hobby, just this one daily routine, just this one persona and desire no more, we can be interested no more in our fellows and we are as good as dead. As long as we are alive and developing as selves, however, our self is infinite and can only be satisfied by imagining itself as fulfilling all the potential of the human race and more. This is why we are so fascinated by our own kind: the variety is enormous and it corresponds to the expansionary potential of our own self. Inevitably in such expansion, the self reveals itself to be deeply paradoxical. Said Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. (I am wide, I contain multitudes.)’ If you don’t understand what he meant, you are probably dead. The capacity of human beings to identify with other human and indeed non-human beings is staggering. The mimic who reproduces before us, with the minimum of disguise, the persona of another in convincing detail, the mannerisms, the foibles, the tics, the speech patterns and so on, is producing this effect of mimesis, not by simple copying, but by identification. One has to begin to wonder, therefore, whether the parrot is not simply ‘parroting’ what it hears, but rather producing the sounds it hears, intelligently understood, by identification. There are people who have astonishing sensitivity to the consciousness of animals and can empathise with them to an amazing degree, horse-whisperers and dog-whisperers and so on. One has to ask oneself whether this too is not a result of identification. If it is how is all this self-identification of the human and non-human world with other beings possible? The answer that Hermann Hesse, for example, gave to this question is that we all have greater or lesser access to aspects of the universal psyche and more specifically to the universal memory. We tend to think of individuals of any species as isolated units, cut off from all but their own experience. This is surely wrong. Individuals are only relatively speaking individuals. They are only relatively speaking separate. In actual fact no identifiable individual is ultimately separate from the entire movement of reality as a single whole, from what physicist David Bohm called the ‘holomovement’. Each individual is as it were a sort of vortex on the vast river of Being that seems to flow from past to future. (I say ‘seems’ here, because although the individual beings move from past to future, Being, itself does not move, since it is timeless.) There are moments, however, when individuals become aware of their status as local manifestations of the entire movement of the phenomenal cosmos. At such times they are aware that their individuality is that of the vortex or eddy in the river. It is impossible to separate the eddy from the flow – you can not take it away from the river; similarly, it is impossible to separate the individual from the flowing ocean of reality or Being. Since this the case, it is reasonable to postulate that reality as a whole possesses memory. This memory of Being is acquired by individuals, but independent of them. At times, then, the universal memory re-enters the consciousness of the individual and suffuses it with a sense of its own universality. It is at such moments that the feats of identification between individual and other become possible. Some individuals possess this ability to a much higher degree than others. Some possess it to a very precise degree, with reference to other individuals or even to individuals of other species. But it is the awareness of the infinity of the universal memory into which the experience of every creature, and probably every identifiable unit of reality, plunges it that is at the heart of the human awareness of the infinity of the self; and it is this that provides our conscious interest in all other individuals, human or not.

For the religious, the essence of sin is egoism, surely? Why? The refusal to accept divine revelation is the only possibility open to consciousness apart from faith, where ‘faith’ means that the personality is rooted, not in the immediate ego-awareness, but in the universal objective psyche, part of which is the universal memory. For the religious, whatever is not of faith is sin – that means that the ego can only bring about its own destruction if it insists on the exclusive validity of its own little authority. It should be obvious to every individual that the individual, alone, is nothing at all. The individual only has substance by contrast with others. To assert that the ego-awareness is ultimately authoritative and of ultimate value, to deny that the personality, the mind, the intellect, the self, in short, is rooted in a psychic realm that transcends the ego in every possible respect, is to miss out on the richness of the mind and to sink into separation from the deepest sources of the mind, of which the brain is only one. That missing out is what is meant by ‘sin’. Functionalisation performs this feat and brings about what Kierkegaard calls ‘spiritlessness’. Both are a kind of death. The egoist is dead without being aware of it. The individual who insists upon the unique authority of the ego is similarly dead, without necessarily being aware of it. Individuals such as Richard Dawkins, who admit only the authority of the rational ego, are dead without being aware of it.
Once one has realised that there are only two possible ways of structuring consciousness - egoism or faith - then everything else slips into place. One either recognises that one is as psychically dependent as one is physically dependent on something far vaster, older and more powerful than oneself (physically, on the whole configuration of all the matter in the universe, psychically on the psychic equivalent of all the matter in the universe); or else one denies this dependence outright and insists that one is dependent upon nothing and no-one but one’s own rational will and one’s desires (there are those who believe that one controls one’s desires). Of course you may say that there are an infinity of positions between these two extremes: dependence upon society, the group, the family, mankind, or whatever. But I have simply pushed these sorts of dependence to the limit, for each of them is contained in a more voluminous kind of dependence. And each sort of dependence is negated by a particular kind of assertion of independence. The essence of the religious consciousness (not all faith arises from religious consciousness) is the abandonment of the illusion of ego-independence and the rooting of the personality in the universal psychic. The notion of ‘God’ is no more than the awareness that the personality is thus rooted in an infinite, objective source of all reality. The essence of atheism, of the Dawkins variety for example, is the inability to understand the futility of ego-independence; it is analogous to the incapacity of the tone-deaf or to those who have a tin ear for poetry. In the grand scheme of things no doubt the human race requires the extreme focus that is provided by the ego-obsessed in their autistic drive to comprehend all of reality with their own immediate ego-resources. But in the end, it will always be the religious consciousness that triumphs, because this alone can motivate, this alone can provide the kind of desires that yield large-scale human projects.

1 comment:

Jimi St. Pierre said...

I am enjoying your reflections in this blog. It is likely that my comments here are tangential, and possibly derivative. But I hope not irritating.

You say: "There are moments, however, when individuals become aware of their status as local manifestations of the entire movement of the phenomenal cosmos". I'd like to seize onto that idea and how it is expressed regularly and with significance in the poetry of T S Eliot.

(He who has a poetical tin-ear, let him hear!)

Here below is what T S Eliot wrote at the end of Burnt Norton, first of his Four Quartets.


"The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs.
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always —
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after".


Such glimpses, and the peripherals which make them possible, which provide the raw material of contrast, of relief, are the subject explored, recalled and re-worked in these poems. The first of the four, Burnt Norton, was written from a memory of an important juncture in his life, where he visited the Gloucestershire manor house with an old friend Emily Hale sometime in the mid 1930's, and whom he knew in former times in Boston.

What is known about this relationship is very little. There are letters sealed away, which will not be accessible for many years to come. But in the poem, he reflects on passages not taken and doors which were never opened. His marriage had broken down years before, his wife eventually sectioned, and here he was in the company of someone from the past, from another country, representing a former life, and with whom (possibly) little or nothing had been shared of his life since, his rushed marriage, the crushing necessity (for a poet) of working in a bank for many years, his estrangement from his father, his breakdown, his journey to faith and through all this the concurrent recognition and flowering of his talent. In any case the biography is peripheral

Here in Burnt Norton there is a memory of a dry pool, which by an optical illusion of the type which we have all experienced, "reflected water out of sunlight". The image turns on a moment when a "cloud passed, and the pool was empty". The recollection of such peripherals - hence "sudden in a shaft of sunlight" - is the springboard for moments which reach out to a place beyond time, where instead of looking into the heart of darkness, there is a glimpse of the "heart of light", where

"What might have been, and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present."

There is a poem by Eliot - "Silence" - written way before any of this; it was towards the end of his time at Harvard, and when he was planning to continue studies in Paris . In it he recalls a moment he experienced whilst walking late in the streets of Boston (I think - anyway, that's the image everyone associates with the young Eliot) which he recognised as "the ultimate hour where life is justified", and expresses a terror that "there is nothing else beside". Lyndall Gordon's biography of Eliot's early years focuses on this: his journey from that point can be seen as an expression, from the confines of the ego, why that fear was a fear to be understood, explored, conquered, transcended. Along the way, I like to believe, in some parallel universe, he met a stranger, perhaps another "familiar compound ghost" (cf Little Gidding, the last of the 4 Quartets), called Albert Camus who had something to say about moments when the heart opens, and of course who had a thing about sunlight.