Posted by: josephsiry | March 29, 2008

Do Things fit together, or do we fit them together?

Four weeks out from the end of term and I have paid special attention to global warming, lost cities, staggering declines in bird populations and a talk I am to give on Charles Darwin. There is of course my attention to the papers I have been reading, evaluating and placing a value on, but there is also the attention I have given to interpreting Octavio Paz to my classes and to Karen Horney. Both of these people were in the early 1950s concerned with identity.

What was in the air that a German doctor and psychoanalyst and a Mexican diplomat while in Paris would both pay such attention to this matter of what it means to be a human being? They were living in post fascist, cold-war torn Europe and America, subjected to the brutality of war, the holocaust and the iron curtain. The conclusion of both the World Wars certainly had a profound impact on my parents and their parents generations. I suspect the questions raised by these basically European civil wars –and savage conflicts they were, where people were reduced to insignificance first my machines and then by the “dogs” of war only to be turned into slaves and commercial products in concentration camps– can never be fully answered. Clearly, Paz and Horney , like Jung, Fromm, and dozens of writers were appalled and assaulted by what had transpired in the twentieth century. The irony of senseless wars amidst some of the most astounding technological achievements and scientific discoveries were not lost on historians, cultural critics, or the reflective personality.

As we approach the memorial month of VE or Victory in Europe day, I am reminded by the readings I assign that identity or the loss of a tangible and comprehensible identity is a preoccupation of the post war period.

Being concerned about your identity, is at first glance, the apparent preoccupation of –well, someone with time on their hands. The very fact we have the capacity to ask the question, suggests a certain level of comfort that more pressing questions such as what should I work to achieve, how can I survive, with whom should I confess my sincerest doubts, and for whom do I serve are all questions that have been answered.

Horney insists that we are capable of losing ourselves and that some neurotic people suffer from a syndrome called “psychic fragmentation,” which is a sort of loss of integrity because you do not experience yourself as a unified or integrated personality. There are many aspects of life such as demands made upon us by others, or the desire to escape some real or imagined hideousness about our character that we may desire to avoid and thus we become detached, even from ourselves.

I am not sure that people living from hand to mouth have such preoccupations, but clearly the people of the leisure class and those of us with secure work can fall into the “loss of identity” preoccupation. And if it is true that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” then I suppose self-reflection may be turned into an attribute. For Paz the diplomat and Horney the therapist humanity and not the individual was their motivation for understanding why humans behave so badly to one another. Each understood that personal drives are dialectically complicated and that we are composite beings, neither fully one kind of person nor fully another. Both recognized the fact that we tend to externalize the “other” from wich we are estranged in our own beings and then place blame on that externalized other so as to relieve our own responsibility for the things we do.

This externalization is I would argue part of what is needed to survive in a war and that every combat condition or each assault on enemies an civilians brings out this need for people in a society to externalize the deamons they perceive and to suggest that the “other” deserve to be degraded even to the point of erradication.

We of course, today are in a war, and I help pay for that war everyday I go to work. Every time I fill up my car’s tank with petrol I cast another stone at my externalized enemy, who really is me. Why — well because I need this car and its precious fuel to get to work, to pay the bills and to keep my taxes flowing into the machinery of dehumanization and war.

Some will say it is a defensive war –whatever that means– since Germans in 1939 thought they were defending themselves from Poland. But I am complicit. I am guilty and I inflict carnage at arms length on a people in Afghanistan and Iraq whom I actually have nothing against. So I write of a profound sense of fear that I cannot fit things together anymore, unless I realize that I am responsible for the carnage, the boken lives and the 4,000 Americans who died to keep me driving around in senseless circles of consumption, just so I can keep from understanding the world and in the meantime get paid to talk about how writers in the twentieth century have felt that we suffer from a loss of identity and we lack coherence as psychologically healthy beings.

Both Horney and Paz –for different reasons– believe that the greater purpose of people is to strive for something greater than their own preoccupation with their fractured souls. Both decried the emotional narcissism and externalized alienation that were so characteristic of their times and mine. Horney felt there was a sort of evolutionary gyroscope that enabled people to be more whole and moral beings, to recognize the actual conditions of the world and our place in that cosmos. Paz believed taht we could transcend the “nightmare” that is our collective and personal histories and unite to make sense out of the “senseless, torture chambers of reason.” I would, of course hope they are correct. But my generation, far from improving the world, is going about fracturing what little is left of humanity and devouring the natural capital that keeps us alive. That is, the natural storehouse of services we extract from the biological world. These storehouses of capital –accumulated over centuries– are all that stands between nature foreclosing on our hyper-industrial culture and from calling in our debts to the millions of other species with which we share this planet. So my need to fuel my car is an even greater egregious act than I can be aware of, because I am unravelling the fabric of nature so that my country can unravel the fabric of Iraqi society.

If there is an order –as Darwin suggested there is an order, or as Einstein insisted there is that order external to our perception of the world– then I have been tearing up parts of that order to fit them into my needs, as opposed to fitting better into the order of the world that created me. By that I mean the world that I am born into, live in and the ecology that sustains my needs and nourishes my curiosity. All of that world helps to create me.

I cannot keep breaking up the world’s ecological and social order. I must change and in so changing, I must consider a means of restoring, even a piece of the world, so that I –in the end– don’t break-apart something really important. For if, by my actions, something really vital to the functioning o fthe world could be harmed, then I destroy my nest, my niche, and my noosphere. If my actions and those of others end in destroying the resilience of the world and not just the social comity that binds me to you and you to me, then what have we done?

As John Donne insisted, “everyman’s death diminishes me.” Four thousand deaths later I am not a better person for having ignored the immoral war my nation engages in and which I work to support. Blessed are they who can worry about their identity for they shall be unable to see that hey, like we all are responsible for a great wrong. My life has been diminished by their deaths and I must in some way make amends, that is all I know to do, since there appears to be no way out of this hell. And the diversions will not last. So will I act and repair the damage, and if so when?

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