Saturday, December 7, 2013

Affirming Life

In a recent post I described religious asceticism as a "life-denying doctrine."  This is the sort of accusation so often mouthed unthinkingly by cultural liberals and romantic individualists as to have become a cliché-- thus making "life-denying" a term something like "reactionary" or "imperialistic" or "hegemonic"-- in short, a verbal bludgeon, the mere polemical force of which is intended to silence opposition.

I should perhaps emphasize, therefore, that when I use it, I do not intend it in this way.  I am not employing it as a cursory judgment on a viewpoint I find perverse or incomprehensible or utterly at odds with my own sensibilities.  Rather, I am intending it as a considered description of a stance toward the world for which I have a great deal of temperamental sympathy, even if I find it ultimately untenable.  But I owe some explanation on both points.

I suspect the moral stance toward the world of the typical, non-saintly person (like me) goes something like this: "I am not a perfect person and never will be.  My goals in life are therefore as follows: I need to find ways to express myself, to live fully, to care for the people closest to me, and to do as much good as I can for strangers and for life as a whole-- and I need to do all of these things in ways that do not conflict with one another."

The saint, for obvious reasons, tends to regard this as a morality of compromise.  She assumes, quite understandably, that such compromise is the result of a weakness of the will rather than a strength of character-- and admonishes us that if we are to take our moral ideal of self-sacrifice seriously at all, we cannot carve a space in it for egotism of the store-bought "self-improvement" variety.

In particular, I suspect the saint would cock an eyebrow at the unseemly juxtaposition of apparent egotism and apparent altruism in the "ordinary moral stance" above.  That stance, you will recall, didn't think there was anything too problematic in listing self-expression, self-actualization, etc (the desire to "live fully," for instance) as a goal alongside service to others-- the desire to do as much as possible for one's loved ones and for all other people too.  The saint would find this flatly illogical.

For those of us reared in modern liberal societies, the saint's criticism is mere carping.  The juxtaposition must seem perfectly natural to us-- if only because it is so familiar.  Bred on the romanticism of Emerson, we tend to assume that the highest ideal in life is to "be yourself."  (According to Oscar Wilde, another unacknowledged source of a lot of our deepest assumptions about the world as modern romantic individualists, this was Jesus' message too: "Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written. And the message of Christ to man was simply ‘Be thyself.’ That is the secret of Christ.")

But implicit in this (and the point is often missed by critics of modern individualism) is that your true self, the higher self you are aiming to "be": is a kind, good, and altruistic one (why else would Christ be construed as the prototype of the romantic individualist?).  For Emerson, indeed, this higher self was God.

It should be clear that this presupposes a belief about the world that liberals (I'm looking especially at my fellow Unitarian Universalists) often take uncritically for granted-- despite the fact that it is not immediately obvious-- or close to being obvious-- on the evidence.  In short, it presupposes that human nature and human instincts, when expressed in their true essence, are basically altruistic.  To the extent that they contain self love (amour propre), this comes in the form of a thirst for self-preservation, for life, and for creativity, but not for self-aggrandizement.  They contain a love of self, but not at the expense of others.  And they contain something else too-- the instinct of empathy: the protective and healing responsibility we feel toward life in all forms.  Rousseau is the ultimate progenitor of many of these ideas-- and of much of the terminology.  His natural beings frolicking in the woods and trilling out their love to one another like songbirds-- these were the prototypes of the first transcendentalists and "seekers", the first hippies and New Age yogis and countercultural gurus and Marcuse-addled commune-dwellers and suburban Bobos.

This view is of course profoundly silly and ridiculous and laughable.  But it also happens to be true.

The saint does not see the second point.  She probably views the whole edifice as a monstrous deception-- as the greatest rationalization of selfishness ever devised.  Because the truth, as the saint sees it, is that self-expression is profoundly at odds with our altruistic moral obligations.  The idealization of the former is just an idealization of self-centeredness.  And indeed, there is a case to be made that much of our modern ideology of romantic individualism is just a cock-eyed fabrication of intellectuals and persons-of-letters anxious to get a "room of one's own" so they can finish writing in the absence of mundane obligations-- away from the pounding feet of creditors and the cries of their children and the stink of the laundry and dishes waiting to be washed.  Allow me to explain.

Writers and artists (and even humble bloggers) are notoriously narcissistic individuals.  The products of their imagination require long hours of solitude to be brought into the world-- and the ordinary obligations of life are precisely the things that interrupt one's solitude at the most inopportune moments.  I, for instance, am currently seated in my pajama bottoms at 2PM on a Saturday with a two-day-old stubble and no real intention of feeding myself in the immediate future-- and all because I got an idea for a blog post this morning.  The mere possibility that I might have to abandon this post halfway through to make a meal or answer the phone fills me with unspeakable dread.

All writers and artists and intellectuals are self-involved in this way-- they have to be, to have convinced themselves that committing their thoughts to paper is a valuable use of their time.  Their craving for solitude also tends to make them snarly if you catch them at a moment of high creative tension.  Children especially arouse their hostility because they require the constant setting aside of one's "higher" thoughts for the sake of their immediate needs-- which is why elite intellectuals in earlier times tried to pawn their children off as early as possible to governesses and wet nurses and appalling English boarding schools.  Faced with modern democracy, on the other hand, the pawnings became more difficult to arrange, and intellectuals were increasingly forced to contend with more ordinary human concerns.  One of the avenues open to them in such a crisis was despair.  As Martin Amis describes the travails of a writer in The Information who is faced with the cruel task of taking a vacuum into the shop for repairs:
"By the time he got the vacuum cleaner out of the apartment and onto the stairs Richard was wondering if he had ever suffered so. This, surely, is how we account for the darkness and the helpless melancholy of twentieth-century literature.  These writers, these dreamers and seekers, stood huddled like shivering foundlings on the cliffs of a strange new world: one with no servants in it [....] By the time he got the vacuum cleaner down into the hall Richard was sure that Samuel Beckett, at some vulnerable time in his life, had been obliged to take a vacuum cleaner in.  Céline, too, and perhaps Kafka-- if they had vacuum cleaners then."
The other avenue was more in keeping with their creative vocations-- it involved contriving an elaborate ideological evasion.  Thus we got the invention of "self-expression" as a new and positive value.  Now when the intellectuals left the kids to fend for themselves and forced their long-suffering friends and family members take in the vacuum in their place, it became a heroic gesture, rather than a selfish one.

This at least is one not entirely implausible account of the origins of romantic individualism-- and Rousseau's record as a parent, to take only one example, certainly doesn't lend much evidence to the view that his "self-love" was actually in everyone else's best interest.

Perhaps, then, self-expression conflicts with the needs of others.  But the trouble with this is that a very great deal of what we do is self-expression of one kind or another-- including nearly all of the things we tend to think of as being the few intrinsically valuable human activities.  All our creative endeavors, our efforts to serve others, our close relationships with family and friends-- these are forms of self-expression, and we are often motivated to do them by at least partially egoistic motives.  "Oh well," we usually say, "at least we're not hurting anybody"-- and I think this attitude has a lot more wisdom in it than will be immediately apparent.  But it will not satisfy the saints, for obvious reasons.  All of the valuable activities of life I just enumerated-- creativity, forming close relationships, and service to others, suffer from two fundamental limitations, which the saints have long recognized:

The first is that the pleasures these activities offer are invariably fleeting.  And in fact, if one tries to pinpoint the "moment" of real pleasure in an activity one previously took to be enjoyable, one often realizes that it is nowhere to be found-- the whole pleasurable experience was lived in a state of anticipation-- and that was the source of the pleasure (many a crestfallen child surrounded by wrapping paper on Christmas morning can confirm the point).

But if there was in fact no culminating experience, then what was there to anticipate?  If the only pleasure that can be found on Earth lies in waiting for something else-- something that can never bring any pleasure in itself except for the expectation of some further things, and so on, "then it must necessarily imply that existence itself is abominable," (Hale tans.) as the character Durtal proclaims in Huysmans' The Damned-- a typical 19th-century tableau of saintly pessimism.  Schopenhauer also had much to say about this, but the idea is no dissipated Continental invention: it is precisely the same conclusion that the Buddha comes to in Asvagosa's ancient account of his life.  If such ephemeral joys are all that life has to offer, then the activities I mentioned as valuable ones in fact have no meaning at all-- unless, perhaps, they help to secure a more final salvation in heaven or in the ultimate negation of Nirvana.

The other fundamental problem is that we often take certain activities to be valuable in themselves precisely because they are some of the few things we do which are not egotistical (forming close relationships, serving others, creativity, etc.).  But what if it could be shown that they were in fact egotistical?  What if it turned out that everything we actually enjoy in life at all was egotistical?  Wouldn't that make the will to live itself an evil?  As Schopenhauer put it: “[H]uman desires cannot begin to be sinful simply at that point at which […] they occasion harm and evil; but […] if this is what they bring about, they must be originally and in their essence sinful […] and the entire will to live itself reprehensible." (Hollingdale trans.) If the will to live is itself evil, we should try to strangle it within us-- not by suicide, which Schopenhauer regarded as an illusory escape-- but by self-mortification, by asceticism, and by systematically extinguishing within us the instinct to enjoy and appreciate life.

Schopenhauer did not dream this up under his own halo of melancholia: he got it from some of the great religious texts of Christianity and Buddhism.  I quoted before what Jesus had to say about hating life.  Buddhism, at least in its original form, was even more hostile to the principle of life, and its notion of salvation involved quite literally a breaking of the cycle of existence-- an escape into nothingness.  This does not mean, necessarily, that this message is the core-- or the only possible version-- of Christianity or Buddhism or even of saintliness, but it has deep roots in all three.

These are not views, let me repeat, that I find the least bit perverse or contemptible.  If we are inclined to regard the claim that all of our instincts to life disguise egotistical motives both as distressingly plausible and utterly intolerable, then the attempt to stifle the life instinct within us may well seem like a tenable solution.

Ok-- but here we come at last to the fundamental problem with this outlook, and the basic reason why we need to affirm self-expression and the instinct to life in themselves.

The saints turned on the life instinct, we have seen, for altruistic reasons.  If the will to live brings suffering and pain, they reasoned, if it is egotistical and conflicts with the will to live in other people, then it must in itself be evil-- and ought to be slowly abnegated.

But we have to ask: what is it we are protecting in these "others" if it is not in fact the will to life?  What do we find so deplorable in our excesses of egoism if it is not that they are destructive of life, hostile to life as it is expressed in others?  What do we wish to accomplish by serving others if it is not to nurture and heal their lives, to protect life wherever it shows its face?  And on the principle of moral consistency-- that what is right for others must be right for ourselves and vice versa-- then it would be incoherent and self-defeating to try to protect something in someone else that we regard as evil and fit to be strangled within ourselves.

Altruistic ethics, then, must be founded on a deep and earnest love of life-- our own life and that of others. Even gloomy old Schopenhauer seemed to acknowledge this, without realizing the challenge it posed to his ideas.  He claims that his ethics are based, after all, on "the recognition of one's own essential being in another," (Hollingdale trans., 140).  But that "essential being"-- the thing we all share, he goes on to state categorically, is none other than the excoriated "will to life"-- the thing he earlier assured us was "reprehensible."  His aesthetic theory is similarly self-defeating.  He insists, for instance, our experience of beauty in observing a florid green landscape is the empathetic response of witnessing the conquest of gravity and nothingness by life-- the sheer power of the will to live that we see there asserting itself.  (161).

What this means, then, is that our silly and laughable modern notion that our own drive for self-expression-- our instinct for life-- is entirely compatible with the nurturing of life in others through our more altruistic and empathetic instincts-- is entirely correct.  In fact, it means that in order to do the latter, we are compelled, logically, to do the former.

If we regard the expression of life in another as good in itself, in short, we must regard it in ourselves as good too-- as possessing intrinsic value.  If we want to be altruists, we also have to be have a little Oscar Wilde and a little Emerson in us.  We have to be-- at least in part-- romantic individualists.

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