Wednesday, September 12, 2007

V Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self

The Self

For decades I have been unhappy with the language we use about the self. We talk about true self and false self as if the self were a thing, split between two static templates, ever at war with each other. We have compounded our problems with neurotic guilt by conceptualizing in this way, and in the process we have allowed our selves to be tyrannized, often in the name of tolerance or healing or liberation. We talk, for example, about fulfillment as if that, too, were a fixed and known goal, and too often the stereotypes of fulfillment into which we must shape our selves are dictated by the hundreds if not thousands of self-help books on the market today.

The truth is that we find fulfillment only in the shift in perception from self-conscious narcissism to self-forgetfulness that attends the dialogue with Otherness. But instead of encouraging this shift into the healing dialogue with Otherness, the message that comes across from these books, usually without our realizing it, is that we are unfinished and flawed projects to be completed according to a regulation universal standard derived from presumption of knowability and control. These books tell us wrongly that self-consciousness alone, that is, what is immediately knowable and perceivable, determines the self, and that there are formulas by which it can be acceptably controlled—until the next self-help book comes along and points out something new that is wrong with us that needs to be fixed.

Such a view of the human person is a deathtrap. It has no reverence for what is ambiguous and ineffable in the human person, for what is différance and Otherness. It is a closed and narcissistic loop that renders us prey to the tyrannies of culture, fashion and, worst of all, the havoc these pressures wreak on our superegos. I have talked with too many women and men who feel trapped and inadequate because of the stranglehold their particular social milieu has on them in the name of self-expression.

Worst of all, we presume—and it is presumption in the worst sense with all the force that this word has in British English of an imposed arrogant ignorance—that we can judge in some absolute sense what in ourselves is good and what is bad, that this part is good and should be kept and that part is bad and has to go. Take anger, for example: it’s true that anger can be destructive to oneself and others, but it’s also true that anger can be a powerful glue for a psyche under pressure; it can provide energy for creative acts; and, focused as courage, it can be a transfigured and transfiguring force in the cause of social justice.

Or consider depression. It has been demonstrated that people who are depressed have stopped lying to themselves. Perhaps we cannot bear too much reality, but there is a fine line between healthy denial and unhealthy denial, and in a world such as ours, occasional shocks of reality are perhaps not such a bad thing.

Many is the artist who suffers from depression for a whole complex of reasons, but who begins to realise after decades of coming to terms with depression that it is somehow essential to the creative truth of the process. Its lethargy also allows the dross of exhausted metaphor and a burnt-out psyche to slough away, and the psyche to reorganize itself around the new metaphors that are emerging from otherness, to set out once again to seek the edges of a new metaphorical universe. We all know the symptoms; it’s a bit like postpartum depression; the task is finished, the advance copy of the book arrives from the publisher, and we are plunged into the abyss with the thought that we are stuck with what is already old stuff and we’ll never have another original thought as long as we live.

We make these judgments with our conscious minds, with our self-consciousness, as if what goes on at the self-conscious level is all there is, in spite of what we know about the complexity of human beings, which is just the opposite. What is expressed at the self-conscious level is only two percent of what goes on in the human person at best. And we compound this mistake by using our feelings as the criteria by which to judge our selves and our behaviour, feelings that are more often than not reactive and deceptive, or at least, our interpretation of them is too often reactive and deceptive.

All this, of course, is a way of talking about the pressure of a materialistic culture, a culture that encourages us to treat our selves as if we were jut another consumable, and what you see is what you get. This is the sort of objectifying of our selves that goes on when we are preoccupied with the comparative gaze attached to the linear loop of difference, in which we are so busy measuring our selves against our own projections onto the other person, projections governed by the abysmal standards of mass production, that we never take the time to look up or down or enter any context greater than our self-conscious perception, to open the loop.

For all our claims to want to be rid of hierarchy and have a more relational society, this linear, looping rigidity simply reinforces hierarchy: this is good, that is bad; this is better, that is best; I don’t have this, I’ll acquire that; this makes me one up or one down. This makes me feel bad; that will make me feel better.

We go shopping in the personality supermarket to try to acquire what we think will make us more attractive or more fulfilled according to the rigid stereotypes the mass-market society foists on us to give us the illusion of specialness, instead of abandoning these Hallowe’en costumes, and learning how to become only who we are, which enables the uniqueness of each of us to flower. This is to mistake individualism for authenticity.

To become only who we are once again requires the fundamental perceptual shift, the willingness to look away from our selves, which means we must learn not to doubt our selves as hopelessly flawed objects, but to trust in the Otherness that is at work in the heart of every human person, if only we will let it. And we let this Otherness work its transfiguring way with us by committing to it our deepest desires and then focusing our intention away from our selves and into this same Otherness that is the stuff of the world around us in the guise of familiarity. We all know this from descriptions of therapy or from Zen archery: we have to lose our embarrassed self-consciousness and self-judgement in order to function optimally.

Here is Pseudo-Denys’ paradox again: the more self-outpouring we are, the more completely we are our selves. And this self-outpouring must not be towards a desired object, but must follow the trace of longing into Otherness across the sea of ineffability, our intentionality the prow of a ship that turns aside all that is not the truth of our selves. This paradox has a name: it is the paradox of intention.


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