14 October, 2007


It is simply the programme of the pleasure principle that determines the purpose of life. This principle governs the functioning of our mental apparatus from the start; there can be no doubt about its efficacy, and yet its programme is at odds with the whole world—with the macrocosm as much as with the microcosm. It is quite incapable of being realised; all the institutions of the universe are opposed to it; one is inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ has no part in the plan of creation.
Freud was, in many respects, the great successor of Montaigne. Pessimist, leisured humanist, maker of statements—and a writer of exquisite prose, even in translation. I find comforting this high rationalist, so contemptuous of that ‘oceanic feeling’ articulated by the theistical unreligious, lamenting, with all emotional candour, the condition of an animal in a universe ranged against its weal. That man should be happy has no part in the plan of creation.

Freud goes on to claim, in Civilization and its Discontents, that ‘What we call happiness, in the strictest sense of the word, arises from the fairly sudden satisfaction of pent-up needs. By its very nature it can be no more than an episodic phenomenon.’ It is only natural, then, after my rush of excitement last week, the satisfaction of pent-up needs, that the novelty should have palled, leaving me wound and nervy by the end of the week. It is not so much a misery as a loss of meaning and colour from the world—I have been unable to concentrate, disinclined to activity and interaction, blank, and distrustful. The thesis, before it is even begun, is haunting me, an uncharted and fearful expanse of possibilities, an oceanic swell of innavigable ignorance. Don’t worry too much, says my tutor. Still, I worry. There is a comfort in worrying, shared.


Shared with you, also. My life is starting to take on some sort of recognizable form. For the last three years I have been crying in the wilderness, with little end—only momentary pleasures and anxieties, diverse varieties of experience. But now there is a telos towards which I am moving, irrefragably. I like to imagine my facility with Latin, how good it will have to be in three years. Yes, if my life has already been made narrative as text in 21.5 months writing for you, it is now becoming narrative not as text, not as art, but simply as life.
Literary historians from Auerbach to John Gardner have traced the way in which the cultural place of narrative has been diminished and the modes of interpretation of narrative have been transformed until it has become possible for modern theorists to understand the form of narrative, not as that which connects story-telling with the form of human life, but precisely as that which segregates narrative from life, which confines it to what is taken to be a separate and distinctive realm of art.
That's what Alasdair MacIntyre thinks, at any rate. Is it true? Does it sound good, at least? For MacIntyre, we have lost, since the Enlightenment, a sense of our lives as parts in a broader narrative—and we have lost a sense of our own life as tending towards a specific goal—the cultivation of virtue and achievement of eudaimonia, which, in the context of modern ethics, is a meaningless word. But was it not Romanticism that called for Bildung? Bildung is teleological in that it has no goals outside itself—its telos is only self-completion and self-perfection. For Gadamer, Bildung is the 'condition of existence' for an authentic humanism. If I have been trying to think, lately, about problems of justification for the pursuit of humanistic discourse—and to no great solution—it is because, for the first time in years, and really for the first time ever, my life smells of Bildung. This must be more, surely, than the vague aesthetic dowsings of a life alone with the library and a keyboard. It must be something constellated, hierarchical.

My tutor talks casually about the stylistic variations in humanist Latin. The man next to her at the lunch table can dissert, for as long as you have, on the manuscript tradition of late Arabic astrology. And, next to him, in turn, a man with Tibetan and Sanskrit, making comments about John Dee.

At this imaginary lunch, I mumble something about Plutarch, and dream of the future, of self-perfection—a perfection which can never be finished, until I feel the fingers of Davy Jones at my throat, and prepare to give my speech, which I have ready, failing, naturally, not only to deliver my last words, carefully sculpted so as to be quotable in biographies—but even to complete my first line, which is, as it turns out, left only as an ellipsis (. . .), a series glittering as the last points of light on a great ocean of souls, occaso sole.

I think it impossible that narrative should not be an integral part of a man's life.


John Emerson said...

It is only natural, then, after my rush of excitement last week, the satisfaction of pent-up needs, that the novelty should have palled, leaving me wound and nervy by the end of the week.

Well, Freud was a cocaine addict. I had extended periods of happiness and well being in my life, though not very recently.

phaneronoemikon said...

chaos is my name.

happy all the time.

John Emerson said...

I should have said, BYW, that I envy you. Sounds like a good place to be.

Greg Afinogenov said...

Have you ever read John Barth's The End of the Road? "Mythotherapy" literally saved my life.

It’s extremely important you learn to assume these masks wholeheartedly. Don’t you think there’s anything behind them: ego means I, and I means ego, and the ego by definition is a mask. Where there’s no ego—this is you on the bench—there’s no I. If you sometimes have the feeling that your mask is insincere—impossible word!---it’s because one of your masks is incompatible with another. You mustn’t put on two at a time. There’s a source of conflict, and conflict between masks, like absence of masks, is a source of immobility. There more sharply you can dramatize your situation, and define your own role and everybody else’s role, the safer you’ll be. It doesn’t matter. Mythotherapy for paralytics whether your role is a major or minor, as long as it’s clearly conceived, but in the nature of things it’ll normally always be major.

Greg Afinogenov said...

I messed it up, characteristically. Better quote here.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, John. I envy me too.

Greg, yes, I have read it, though I prefer Barth's longer work, such as Tidewater Tales and The Church Dogmatics.