The sublime in art and self-actualization

Blogmate Paul Adkin recently posted about “purposiveness and becoming.” The simplified gist of it – I partly conjecture, as Paul is ahead of me on some things philosophical – is that purposiveness is teleological or end-oriented. We get a sense of purpose by directing our attention at something “out there/not here yet” toward which we can strive. Thus, purposiveness is wedded to our process of becoming, of transforming ourselves. And if that process of transforming ourselves is in a predetermined direction, we have “purpose” in life.

After a bit of free association, I started correlating Paul’s ideas to some art shows I’d seen recently. In the arts, there is the age-old distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, sometimes cast as the classical and the romantic. Beautiful/classical is associated with symmetry, framing, a delightful rational pleasure; the sublime/romantic is associated with excess, passion, feelings of awe or of being overwhelmed by something that cannot be adequately grasped or framed.

So my tie between Paul and the arts becomes this: Beauty relates to being, the sublime relates to becoming; beauty is static, the sublime is dynamic. The beautiful artwork or musical composition comes to us framed neatly, symmetrically; it is calming and delightful, not disruptive or disturbing. Indeed, it is calming and delightful specifically because it ratifies our sense that we can frame things neatly, symmetrically, rationally, hold them in our hands and view them in wonder.

Knowing nothing of musical history, I think of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as beautiful, the perfect expression of that delight that comes with rational pleasure. Then I think of his younger contemporary, Beethoven, composing his 5th symphony 20 years later. The 5th is sublime right from the 4-note opening, the “fate motif” that everyone knows. The ominous motif itself seems a warning shot that what is coming is not beautiful but sublime, not an invitation to relax in delight, but something disruptive, full of passion that is not easily confined or domesticated; indeed, something a little bit frightening, breaking the comfort zone of being and expanding it in a way that causes existential angst, as the listener goes beyond their capacity to keep the response within pre-ordained limits. The capacity falters, and one is overwhelmed.

Though my examples might be faulty from the viewpoint of music history, I can still take the point about beauty and the sublime and apply it to self-actualization. Beauty resonates with our stages along the path, it resonates with the pleasure we get when we can pause, look around us, and appreciate the wonderland we happen to be in at this stage of life or of reality. The sublime resonates with our moments of transformation, disruption, the struggle between stages, where one fixed stage is lost and the new not arrived. It is a period of angst – frightening, dizzying, and exhilarating at the same time. The self that has existed up to this moment is overwhelmed and swept aside and the new self not yet formed. It is not unlike what ancient civilizations must have felt at the winter solstice, when the old sun seems dying but the new sun uncertain. It is the breaking of the snakeskin as the old self is shed, its boundaries shattered, but the new self not yet secure.

I know that Slavoj Zizek, whom I admire for his politics, has had something to say about the sublime. (Full disclosure: I have not read Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, but I have read The Parallax View and a few other bits, and hey, as I said at the outset, this is free association time.) If I had to tie my thesis about the sublime to politics, the easiest point of entry would be in royal lineage. “The king is dead; long live the king.” In that paradox is the anxiety of the sublime in its political aspect. That moment between the death of one monarch and the coronation of the heir must have been one of tremendous anxiety for the body politic, the opening for bloody war and massive dislocation in the fragile civil society, the sublime moment of transformation is all its terrible possibility. Best to try close the gap to the single breath indicated by the semicolon: “The king is dead; long live the king.”

For Zizek, I know, it’s probably more of an ideological thing. Perhaps the self gets overwhelmed and lost in the totalizing ideology that swamps it. This seems especially relevant in totalitarian societies. But I like my king example for how it resonates with those transformative moments in self-actualization.

Just to finally touch on Zizek’s psychoanalytic (Freudian) angle on the sublime, as I am told that he goes there, too. Freud’s superego, of course, relates nicely to the sublime. Let’s briefly say that Freud’s tripartite schema consists of (1) the id, which refers to the dark, primitive drives; (2) the superego, which relates to the inscrutable, all-powerful (father-) figure to which the infant psyche is subjected (and which the infant psyche introjects), the enforcer of prohibitions but also the source of higher ideals for which to strive; and (3) the ego, where the rubber meets the road in terms of the id’s reckless drives and the superego’s controlling function. In Zizek (or so I’m told), ideology functions as a superego. This, to me, opens an interesting dichotomy in the sublime. In one variant, the subject is overwhelmed by the inscrutable power faced and is humbled into in state of awe by the objective power. The second variant comes with the exhilaration of resisting and thwarting the Law – “jouissance” Zizek calls it. To stick to the political framing, the first variant might the “conservative” variant (cp. Edmund Burke), insofar as the subject is humbled, resistance impossible, and the objective power source reaffirmed. The second variant might be the more “radical” variant (cp. Kant), in that the subject breaks down the objective formations of power and proclaims its own dominion.

Back to self-actualization. Beauty and the sublime. An endless series of steps, each step a pleasant resting place, with the movements between fraught with danger and transformation, fraught with the possibility that that self might be utterly lost, humbled, overwhelmed (Burke), or that the self might be exhilarated and transformed, ennobled into some entirely new being who can look back in wonder at all the steps below, enjoy the delight of the moment, and then feel the pull of purposiveness and turn the gaze back upward.

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Doublewoke: The Next Countercultural Explosion

Recently searching neighborhood live theater in Chicago as I was passing through, I stumbled across 5 or 6 venues online without much searching at all. All but one featured tales of the suffering engendered by white privilege. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed at the narrowness of theme (no knock on Chicago per se, whose beautiful people and cultural vitality continue to amaze). Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with the underlying politics of “woke” culture. My “doublewoke” (or woke against woke) conceit is not a full renunciation of wokeness, but an encouragement to take the next turn, to take the potential for good that lies slumbering in the woke movement and wake it up to a brand new day.

I start with the assumption that the “woke” set and I share a long-term progressive ideal of a society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact. But I fear the machinery of “woke” is going about it in the least efficient way, relying on two shaky strategies. First, it relies too heavily on negative reinforcement; i.e., search the people you encounter not for the good that is in their hearts but for any faux pas, past or present, that can be used to scarlet letter them as racist, sexist, etc. Sure, no one is perfect, but this approach suggests that we can right the ship with sufficient shaming and scolding. Unfortunately, shaming as a means of betterment just doesn’t work. Self-loathing among black men becomes a subject of academic scrutiny from time to time, and the consensus is always that self-loathing does not help their lot. Self-loathing, which Freud might call the introjected form of shaming, does not build character for blacks and does not build character for whites. Shaming may not be the intent, but if this is the reception you get from all who fall outside the “already woke” category, which includes many ordinary people who might otherwise be allies, you might reconsider your rhetorical strategy. Save the accusatory tone for the select few malicious racists who deserve it, and discard your broad brush with the other solid waste. Using the broad brush always places the “us versus them” line at a spot that gives far too much to the other side.

The other shaky strategy is dividing people by race, gender, etc., instead of by ideology. We should be bringing black, white, gay, straight, etc., together in a rainbow coalition to fight for that progressive vision mentioned above. The enemy is not white, black, male, or any other such demographic grouping. The enemy (at least the short-term enemy, as there are no long-term enemies, for, like it or not, we all travel the spaceship earth together) should be defined ideologically, as those whose ideas continue to lock in the disequilibriums of late capitalism. The woke folks, however, too often represent the struggle as if it were women against men, black against white. They too often suggest we should vote for, value, or pronounce someone guilty or innocent based on skin color or sex organs or gender. Drawing the battle lines along race or gender is counterproductive if your goal, again, is that “society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.” By drawing battle lines between and building walls around specific genders and races, you are impeding, not advancing, the long-term progressive vision.

Despite the problems that woke culture has in engaging all but the choir, it is rapidly becoming hegemonic in the arts. I suspect that my experience searching venues in Chicago is not unique. Wokeness can no longer claim any countercultural banner. It is, for all practical purposes, the Establishment in arts and humanities. But once any establishment becomes fixed in place, conditions are ripe for the next countercultural movement – in this case the “woke against woke” movement. It will begin in satire, and we may indeed see such a beginning in works such as those of the fictitious Titania McGrath, who turned out the be spiked columnist, Andrew Doyle. First subject wokeness to satire – but without giving any succor to conservatives. Indeed, conservatives must also be subject to the barb, else the movement is not countercultural at all but merely reactionary. When the satire starts to hit – who knows – it may trigger a Cambrian explosion in the arts, where after a (woke) period of narrower and narrower definitions of “acceptable,” the dam bursts open. Rather than circling the wagons around race and gender, restricting who can write what, suddenly everyone is encouraged to artistically explore everyone else’s point of view, everyone participating in every culture in a frenzy of mutual celebration not unlike the middle panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

It will be a new Age of Aquarius. Thus spoke its prophet.

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Evil bastards

What do we do with evil bastards in literature? Not every work of literature includes them, but those that do seem to gain a particular purchase on the reader’s attention. Writers love to dream up evil bastards, and we love to enter the dream. But why are we drawn to representations of evil? Maybe because consciousness evolved as a practical adaptation, a problem-solving mechanism. If there’s a small flaw on a large canvas, we tend to zero in on the flaw. If twenty kids are playing nicely in a playground and one is misbehaving, all attention turns to the miscreant. Where there is no problem, consciousness relaxes; where there is a problem, consciousness engages in an urge to explain, to determine, to get our arms around the problem for future reference.

Whether you buy that intro or not, you might find it interesting to explore how fictional evil occurs as a problem we urgently want to explain, to learn from, to pin down for further reference. Below are a few templates for how to explain evil in its fictional deployments.

Social conditions

I might also call this the “materialist template”, and it is big in the age of realism. Evil is a result of historical conditions. Dickens novels might best exemplify this on the literary side, Marx on the philosophy side – human nature is neither good nor evil, but social conditions make it so.

Metaphysical/religious

Evil is part of the great cosmic struggle that is larger than any human life, an absolute that must be faced on its own terms. This model dominates not only overtly religious stories like Paradise Lost, but also heavily symbolic ones like Melville’s Billy Budd, where the human struggle of good and evil seems a shadow cast by some larger eternal archetypal or cosmic struggle.

Psychoanalytic/Freudian

Evil results from a deformation in the individual psyche, some repressed psychological trauma from the personal past that emerges in a destructive form. Poe’s psychopaths, for example: Montresor’s evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” is that of a mentally ill individual. There are no signs of poor social conditions or interventions of spiritual entities from some religious outer frame. There is just the nameless “injury” in Montresor’s personal past that rearranged his mind into that of a monster. (Note: If I were to separate a Psychoanalytic/Jungian version, I would fold it back into the metaphysical/religious. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, e.g., is essentially a  Jungian/archteypal quest, and any good and evil Milkman encounters along the way are not just realistic details in the life of a man but plot points in an archetypal struggle. Again, the Jungian/archetypal model is my metaphysical/religious model recast into the language of psychoanalysis.)

Existentialist

Here, evil is irreducibly inexplicable, absurd, too arbitrary to be explained via any diagnostic metric. When Meursault kills the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger, we might call this evil in its existentialist aspect. Indeed, it is so inexplicable that we can hardly call it evil. It may be that the existentialist world view, following Nietzsche, is better relegated to the territory “beyond good and evil.” Let’s try Shakespeare’s Iago. He seems to represent a version of evil that is unmotivated, unexplained by a bad childhood or poor social conditions or metaphysical/religious interference or any other rational explanation. He just expresses evil as a random and fundamental force. Of course, his evil is recontained in Shakespeare’s world – not before harm is done, but the moral framing in Othello is not existentialist in tone. There is a moral order to the universe that we can glean from the tragedy. So perhaps Iago shows evil in its absurd or irrational aspect as something that can be recontained in a moral universe, whereas Meursault shows evil in the same aspect but with little or no moral framing.

I could probably think of more, but that is enough to chew on for one day. Feedback welcome.

The fascinating brain of teen girls

I don’t really know much about the brain of teen girls. As a man, the female psyche must on some level remain for me, as it was for Freud, “a dark continent” (The Question of Lay Analysis, 1926). Freud was prescient enough to know that the mechanisms he studied were the objective mechanisms of identity formation — not the subjective experience itself (the dark continent). He was also progressive enough to warn his fellow analysts against “underestimating the influence of social customs” in discussions of gender and to emphasize that “the proportion in which masculine and feminine are mixed in an individual is subject to quite considerable fluctuations” (Essay on Femininity, 1933).

But enough about Freud. After all the psychology and philosophy and literature I’ve read, I think my daughter (I believe 14 at the time) most succinctly expressed, by accident one day, exactly what it feels like to be a teenage girl. We were wandering a city in Spain — Barcelona, Madrid, I forget which city — and were in a green space filled with monuments. I had momentarily lost her, and then I heard her voice near a monument and came back up to her.

“Hey there. What ya doing?” I asked her.

“Singing. And thinking about how weird I look.”

She tossed the line off casually, but I thought that that was it. The rich and contradictory inner life of the teenage girl in a nutshell.

Now I welcome feedback from those of you who actually were teenage girls (and from those of you who weren’t — unlike some of my younger liberal friends, I reject all restrictions on what you are allowed to say, think, or do, based on your demographic identity).

Freud’s Wolf Man and Joyce’s Dubliners

It’s hard to read Freud’s case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918) and not be fascinated. Most intriguing of all is how Freud slowly pieces together the patient’s unconscious backstory using what little the patient gives him, small memories that have stuck with the patient for some reason: he was holding his mother’s hand as a toddler, and she was lamenting her illness to a doctor she was seeing off at the train station, and her words made a deep impression; he was standing with his governess in front of the house watching a carriage drive off with his father, mother, and sister, and then walked peacefully back into the house with his governess; there was a picture book with a wolf standing upright that his sister had used to frighten him. Each snapshot seems insignificant but left its mark, and indeed these “insignificant” moments become defining moments, albeit unconsciously, that shape all the subsequent life of the patient’s psyche.

Notice the similarity to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Joyce spearheaded a turn in the history of the novel away from the perfectly crafted plotlines of Dickens toward something more subjective. What happens when you can no longer rely on plot milestones and neat closures to frame the flow of meaning? What happens – at least if you are in the early 20th century – is you stumble into a Freudian frame of meaning. In Dubliners, each story captures a moment with no big drama but with an impression left on the protagonist’s mind – the character’s disappointment in “Araby” when he arrives too late at a fair and is unable to get a gift for the girl he secretly loved, the child’s sense of the corpse’s presence at an in-home wake (“The Sisters”), the sense of something peculiar and transgressive in the old man’s approach in “An Encounter.” These moments have the same kind of vitality as the memory-scenes in Freud’s case histories. No bells and whistles, but they capture an impression that leaves a deep mark on the psyche.

I don’t know how deliberate Joyce’s Freudian ground of meaning was, but history makes some cross-pollination inevitable. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was offered (but declined) Joyce’s Ulysses for publication around the same time that they were publishing English translations of Freud’s on-going works (and poems by the likes of T. S. Eliot). Certainly all these towering early modernists – Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence – were moving in the same circles, with Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group as one of the nuclei. But however tenuous the cross-connects, there is no doubt that Joyce’s Dubliners participates in reshaping the form of fiction away from the organizing principles of plot and climax. (Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [1927], to me, would be the greatest example of the modernist novel built around subjective points of reference, but Dubliners is closer to the kick-start.) Joyce thus helps to reshape modern identity – first by changing the form in which we see these human stories transacted, and secondly by changing the role of the reader. The reader must orient differently to Dubliners than he had to Dickens. No more of the objective markers that make Dickensian characters so memorable (one thinks, e.g., of Gradgrind, “whose head was all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie”), or of the dramatic climax that brings all the plot threads together. In the trajectory of fiction from Dubliners to Woolf, the reader herself is cast into the role of psychoanalyst, peering into the minds of minor characters, looking for how lasting impressions are made of seemingly trivial events. It’s not about what the characters are doing so much as it is about the dynamics of being.

So was Joyce deliberately deploying Freud? Was Freud perhaps influenced by modernist writers and artists of the day? I’ll let others measure out the exact influences, but I’d recommend this experiment for my own readers: Pick up a copy of Freud’s Three Case Histories, which includes the Wolf Man, notice how reading it places you into the role of psychoanalyst, and ask yourself if the reader is not cast into the same role when he or she reads Dubliners or To the Lighthouse. And ask yourself if that shift in orientation about how we read does not partly reflect and partly implement a shift of human identity into its modern form.

Related: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon/Sula; Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

From Depth Psychology to the Akashic Record

It’s commonplace now to hear how modern physics increasingly dovetails with the ancient world view of the Eastern mystics. If this is true of our evolving conception of the objective universe and how it works, it is also true in the vast space of the subjective universe, the space of the psyche.

Before Freud, you had “faculty psychology,” which seemed well seated upon the Western classical world view – a symmetrical row of nice, neat boxes, each representing a “faculty” (appetite, emotion, desire, reason, etc.). Freud’s theories signaled a paradigm shift to “depth psychology,” with layers of unconscious drives and desires and memories folded beneath our conscious awareness, influencing our everyday behavior from invisible, forgotten spaces in the depths of the psyche.

“Depth psychology” is still the dominant paradigm for the psyche, and even Freud’s attackers draw upon Freud for their weapons, but his breakaway student, Jung, expanded the “depth” of depth psychology. Freud’s locus of interest is the individual psyche, and his case histories typically trace back antecedents of adult behaviors to the formative infantile development of the individual. Jung traces the roots of the psyche deeper still, to a place that transcends the individual altogether; hence we get the universal archetypes of the collective unconscious, a deep space of psychic phenomena shared by us all. You can think of it as our common grazing land, or if you prefer a high-tech metaphor, it’s the “cloud” wherein our fundamental data are stored and from which we all download to configure our own machinery. Either way it is here, in this transcendentally deep “subjective inner world,” that Jung finds “the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.”

It’s a short stretch from Jung to the akashic record of the mystics. The akashic record in the Eastern mythos is the record of everything normally considered past, present, and future (in our clumsy linear sense of time). Every thought, every movement of every leaf, is contained in this vast database, as it were. But the akashic record is more than a database. It is the ultimate reality. All our daily actions are reflections of, or abstractions from, the akashic record. We are right now living the akashic record, experiencing it from one orientation point. Through yoga, meditation, or other spiritual practices, you can almost picture your self-reflection carrying you down to the Freudian depth of childhood and then infancy, then breaking through to the Jungian depth of the collective unconscious, and finally arriving at the level we metaphorically call the akashic record. At this point, we’ve not only carried depth psychology to a point where Western psychology merges with Eastern mysticism, but we’ve inadvertently married the “objective” and “subjective” universes that provided the point of departure in the opening paragraph of this fine blog entry. Cosmic consciousness, as the very compound of the phrase suggests, simultaneously expresses ultimate reality in both its objective and subjective aspects. When you hit that ultimate depth, the inside becomes the outside, the innermost psyche finds itself expressed as the objective cosmos. So om mani padme hum, and I’ll see my physicist friends on the other side.

Tristram Shandy’s Faux Postmodernism

From time to time, my literati friends put forth Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) as if it were a postmodernist novel 200 years ahead of its time. This is understandable, considering all the reflexivity and discontinuities built into the structure of the text. But on the core issue of human identity, Sterne is no postmodernist.

Human identity, to the postmodern, is essentially fragmented, incoherent, all colliding and discordant surfaces without any stabilizing interior or deep anchor. Sterne may superficially anticipate these postmodern preferences, insofar as human identity in Shandy, more so than in contemporaries in the period from Henry Fielding to Jane Austen, is whimsically determined by each character’s hobbyhorse. Sterne, however, is a man of sentiment, and his sentimental world view is at odds with postmodernism’s intellectually austere view of human identity. In Sterne’s case, the sentimental side wins. Although human identity in Shandy may seem random, even infinitely displaced by hobbyhorsical identity, this arbitrariness is underwritten in the text by a sense of private identity. (And insofar as private identity is perhaps more “private” in Sterne than in other writers of his age, he may anticipate Freud more than he anticipates postmodernism per se.)  It may be true that once we get Uncle Toby’s “military apparatus out of the way . . . the world can have no idea how he will act,” but Tristram suggests that the reader has a clearer vision than “the world”: “You have seen enough of my Uncle Toby” to know his “singleness of heart . . . plainness and simplicity” (italics mine).  For those who would appropriate Sterne for postmodernism, it may be tempting to see no stable identity behind the hobbyhorse.  (Compare to my snippets on Gertrude Stein or Robbe-Grillet.) A careful reading, however, suggests that there is private human identity, and that it is urgent that we recognize it as such, despite appearances, for this private identity is the real locus of the sympathetic passions at the heart of the 18th-century Cult of Sensibility, of which we might call Sterne a charter member.