Friday, January 29, 2016

Notes on Lack, Part II

In the last post I discussed the importance of denied desire to human personality. Now I’m going to discuss the exact ways in which an unmet need controls a soul. There are all kinds of psychological ways of coming to grips with lacking the one thing needful, whatever that is.

1. Striving. The first, and almost certainly the healthiest, is to do your damnedest to get it. That way you can put an end to your hunger. If you do get it, then you’ll stop wanting it. And if you don’t, then you get to be satisfied that it wasn’t just your own creeping neurosis that kept you from your heart’s desire. You can then cheerfully curse the world with a clean conscience. E. M. Forster’s novels preach this gospel: ruthless honesty about what you want, his wisest characters say, will rescue you from wallowing in muddles of half-understood anxiety and misery.

But most people and animals, even if they’re warmbloodedly honest about their real desires, and eager to fill them, are simply not powerful (or beautiful, or clever, or wealthy) enough to actually get what they want or need. They cannot unfold themselves into the world, and are trapped by the walls of unmoving matter—or of society, as the case may be.

This powerlessness causes all of human beings’ strange attempts to quiet their hunger without the possibility of food. Starting with:

2: Gratitude. You can convince yourself that you have everything you need, and that you’re thankful (to God, the gods, the earth, or your family) for what you have already have. This can save you from bitterness, as long as you have things in your life to be thankful for—which is no guarantee.

...and then, if you’re eager enough for what you lack, you’ll say in about ten seconds: why should I thank a world that has given me everything that’s unimportant but nothing that I really need? Since any desire strong enough will convince you that you only need x, both and z, however lovely, will seem like unnecessary tinsel. At which point you need other means of coping.

Who knows what they really want?
3: Sour Grapes. You can also convince yourself that what you want is actually worthless. Like Aesop’s tale of the fox and the grapes: “Gnawed at by hunger, the fox jumped with all his might to reach some high-hanging grapes. But he couldn’t touch them, and he muttered while walking away: they’re not ripe yet anyway.” Look around and you’ll see this everywhere. There’s the man who loves learning more than anything, but is denied a university education—and proceeds to heap scorn on academia for his whole life. There’s the woman who loves other women, but marries a man—and convinces herself it’s because homosexuals live pointless, wandering lives. There’s the nerd who mocks athletic prowess as dumb and brutish. There’s the sick person who convinces himself that health is evil because it tempts people into self-centered blitheness, and because it’s only temporary anyway. There’s the pauper who knows that wealth rots you on the inside.

This self-deceit can be healthy as long as you succeed in fooling yourself. Religious chastity, for instance, is a remedy to earthly loneliness as long as you believe to the bottom of your soul that carnal love is disgusting to God. But it doesn’t always work: many a priest (and there are more priests than wear a collar) has secretly suspected that heavenly love is a false substitute for the real thing. So when sour grapes seems like too thin a disguise, one turns to:

4: Escaping the Will. You can go the Theravadin Buddhist way: you can try to cut yourself loose from all desire. Tranquil nothingness is the ultimate goal, and the intermediate step is to stop wanting what you currently want. Here’s Cephalus in the Republic, book I:
I was once with the poet Sophocles when he was asked by someone: “how, Sophocles, are you getting on with love? Can you still lie with a woman?” He replied: “Listen, fellow: I fled from love gleefully, like someone fleeing a mad and wild master.” This reply seemed right to me when I heard it, and no less today. For there is certainly peace and freedom from these things in old age. When our passions relax and stop tearing us apart, Sophocles’ remark is true: there is freedom from many insane masters.
This is not mastering desire, which is the doctrine that Plato ends up preaching. It is escape from it. Consider also the Fire Sermon:
Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame.... The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging &; death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. 
“Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with the eye, disenchanted with forms, disenchanted with consciousness at the eye, disenchanted with contact at the eye. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: With that, too, he grows disenchanted...

He grows disenchanted with the intellect, disenchanted with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness at the intellect, disenchanted with contact at the intellect. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: He grows disenchanted with that too. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’
By escaping from your desires, says the Buddha, you can end your suffering. But it requires giving up who you are, or at least who you are right now: as I started this essay by saying, a person is knit together by what he longs for, and his personality is shaped by it. A purified arahant, by extinguishing his desires, extinguishes himself as well, and turns into a shadow of what he was—which vanishes forever at death. This is a feat of almost heroic self-denial, and would be incredible if there were not in fact heroes on earth. Some people can, in fact, save themselves. But if you’re not a hero, you have another option:

5. Surrender. You can give up all defenses, and accept deprivation’s power over you. This does painful things to you, but it’s at least honest: it carries none of the self-deceit implicit in #2. In Harry Potter, if you remember, the Mirror of Erised shows you whatever you want the most in the world. When he catches Harry staring at his living parents in the mirror, Dumbledore gives him a warning: “The mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible. … It doesn’t do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Not even Dumbledore can avoid the pain of want—he doesn’t, we learn in the Half-Blood Prince, see only wool socks in the mirror. But Dumbledore can be wise enough to hide the mirror away, and live his life despite wanting a family more than anything. The suffering shepherd in Arcadia has to tend his flocks in the end, even if his soul shrivels as he does it.

That’s to put too gloomy a spin on it. Acknowledging slavery to the will can, of course, sink you into perpetual gloom. But it can also be done with a grin: read the love-poems in the Carmina Burana, which mix submission to desire with elvish glee. Most people, in fact, are enslaved to one denial or another, but a slave-song can be a jig as well as a dirge.

Denial can even be the furnace of industry and dignity. This is the point of Hans Sachs’ musing at the end of Die Meistersinger:
Madness! Madness! Everywhere madness! Wherever I look searchingly in city and world chronicles, to seek out the reason why people torment and flay each other in useless, foolish anger! No-one has reward or thanks for it: driven to flight, he thinks he is hunting; hears not his own cry of pain; when he digs into his own flesh he thinks he is giving himself pleasure! Who will give it its name? It is the old madness, without which nothing can happen, nothing whatever! If it halts somewhere in its course it is only to gain new strength in sleep: suddenly it awakens, then see who can master it!  
How peacefully with its staunch customs, contented in deed and work, lies, in the middle of Germany, my dear Nuremberg! ... Now let us see how Hans Sachs manages finely to guide the madness so as to perform a nobler work: or if madness won’t leave us in peace even here in Nuremberg, then let it be in the service of such works as are seldom successful in plain activities and never so without a touch of madness.
The world is consumed with desire, he says, in language borrowed straight from Schopenhauer. But desire, however evil, is the stuff of our lives. That’s something we need to live with. Humanity, if it can’t rid itself of the will, can wear it as an ennobling crown.  

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