Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

mythologies

I’ve been working in a library for the last few weeks, and I’m finding it quite agreeable. It allows me to use both my retail warehouse experience and my academic experience. I’m enjoying it so much I’m considering going back to school next year to qualify for a full-time job. One of the benefits is getting a close look at the collection, which is really very interesting. As is essential with small libraries, the collection is highly idiosyncratic; big sections on medicine and sociology, not as much in languages or the hard sciences. I sometimes think that we must have had an amazing collection forty years ago, but then I realize that these books that were cutting edge in the 1970s probably weren’t acquired until the late 1980s or 1990s.

This is from work rather than from my personal collection; I’m the first person to check it out, but now that there’s a stamp from 2017 it’s likely to have a spot reserved on our shelf for some time to come. This is a book of essays about French pop culture in the 1950s, translated to English in the 1970s, but Barthes’s observations seem oddly congruent with American society of the 2010s. Far from being a dispassionate observer, Barthes seems to get quite angry about things, and the things that make him angry are the same things making my friends angry now.

The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself. In the petit-bourgeois universe, all the experiences of confrontation are reverberating, any otherness is reduced to sameness. The spectacle or the tribunal, which are both places where the Other threatens to appear in full view, become mirrors. This is because the Other is a scandal which threatens his essence. Dominici cannot have access to social existence unless he is previously reduced to the state of a small simulacrum of the President of the Assizes or the Public Prosecutor: this is the price one must pay in order to condemn him justly, since Justice is a weighing operation and since scales can only weigh like against like. There are, in any petit-bourgeois consciousness, small simulacra of the hooligan, the parricide, the homosexual, etc., which periodically the judiciary extracts from its brain, puts in the dock, admonishes and condemns: one never tries anybody but analogues who have gone astray: it is a question of direction, not of nature, for that’s how men are. Sometimes – rarely – the Other is revealed as irreducible: not because of a sudden scruple, but because common sense rebels: a man does not have a white skin, but a black one, another drinks pear juice, not Pernod. How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is here a figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognized places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. [Barthes’s italics]

Barthes’s main point can be summarized pretty quickly, actually. One of the most important problems with people (specifically, the bourgeois, or we might say conservatives or Trump supporters) is that they confuse Nature with History. They look at the injustice in the world and they assume it is the natural order of humanity instead of a culturally specific situation determined by social, political, and economic forces (what he calls History). Nowadays we call it being blind to privilege and it’s the fashionable complaint against our political opponents, but it’s the same concept. The consequence of this confusion is what I call The Myth of Human Powerlessness, the idea that no one can do anything about things. People don’t fight against injustice because they think that they can’t (powerless) and that they shouldn’t (it’s natural, so no one is responsible for it, least of all me).

The first part of the book is a set of short pieces, each three or four pages long and inspired by something happening around him. Some of the pieces come from performances, like a wrestling match or a striptease, but others come from reading the sort of magazines that these days are found in the supermarket checkout line – Elle, Paris-Match, and L’Express. These pieces are focused on concrete facts and events, which makes them fairly simple to understand.

The second part is a fifty-page essay of post-structuralist theory, which is highly abstract and less simple to understand. He refers to Saussure and Freud and seems to prefigure Derrida, whose first major essay was written around the same time, but most of whose work came later. Barthes defines mythology as a second order of signification: a concept is represented by a symbol, and the relationship between the two is considered a sign, which is a simple dialectic that I can understand. I saw Bell, Book, and Candle for the first time recently, so let’s talk about it. Most of the main characters are witches, but if they fall in love with the opposite sex they lose all their power, so they are constantly fighting against heterosexuality. So in this film, it seems like witchcraft is a symbol for gay sexual orientation; homosexuality is the signified, witchcraft the signifier, and our connection between them (which includes them) is the sign.

The trick with Barthes’s definition of mythology is that it’s a second-order sign: the sign itself can become a symbol for another concept, and the relationship between the two can be considered a myth. Or in other words, what does the fact that we equate witchcraft with homosexuality mean? The narrative surrounding homosexuality in 1958 told the story of anti-American sexual deviants who had no place in proper society; these witches lead similar lives of secrecy and hold similarly dismissive attitudes about the people who demean their community and deny their right to exist. For Barthes, this is the sticking point: modern mythologies point us to injustices in our society, and for someone who understands that Human Powerlessness is a myth, injustice can and should be corrected. When I was in school people talked about how post-structural linguistic arguments were politically motivated, but I think I’m just beginning to understand that now.

Barthes includes a section on left-wing myth, but he points out that mythology is primarily a conservative drive. It’s the people on the right who have a vested interest in keeping things the same (hence the name conservative), so they invent complicated mythologies to maintain their privileged position. The examples of this are too numerous and too painful for me to pursue right now, and besides, the internet is full of people pointing out the injustices. I sometimes feel like my facebook friends are expecting me to fix all of the injustices right now (ALL OF THE INJUSTICES!!!!!!!), and while I don’t believe myself to be powerless, I don’t see how I can do more than I’m doing already, teaching my students to spot their own prejudices by guiding their reading of essays used as rhetorical models. Because I don’t think it’s enough to spread articles on facebook to raise awareness; I think awareness has to be coupled with a concrete plan of action to remedy the injustice. For example, people raised my awareness about the tragic hurricane in Puerto Rico, and then they included several links to pages where I could donate money to support the relief agencies traveling to the island to help the people. This one is good, but most of the others don’t tell me what I can do to relieve the pain. Hence my frustration with the MeToo hashtag, which seems to tell me not to sexually harass or assault women, but I’m already exhibiting that behavior. How much of this awareness-raising is being targeted at people who are already demonstrating the target behavior? How many of the people using that hashtag are actually friends with someone who would assault them or denigrate them because of their gender? And for men, the limit of what people seem to expect of us is that we won’t assault women. I can’t volunteer in a facility for women who have become victims because the mere fact of my maleness could be a trigger for them. My presence would make them relive their trauma, so I stay away. But I feel like there ought to be something I can do other than feel the weight of suffering of hundreds of people and carry it on my shoulders like Atlas.

The world is a beautiful place where good people live. But there are still problems, and Barthes’s strategies can help us elucidate those problems and work toward solutions. He doesn’t reach any solutions in this book (other than something like “treat people with more respect”), but he raises questions and models thinking that will push us in the direction of solutions. He’s raising awareness. And if it takes us another sixty years to find solutions, then at least we’re moving in the right direction.

Advertisements

This book glories in the use of pronouns. So much so, that at the beginning of a chapter it can be difficult to know whose perspective we are reading from. So much so, that the main character in the book is never named, but we have enough clues to deduce that he is Sherlock Holmes, nearly ninety, living in the country during World War II, keeping bees.

Holmes enters our story as a crazy old man yelling at children. More specifically, at a young German Jew who’s been evacuated to the English countryside to avoid the concentration camps. The boy is about to piss on the third rail that carries electricity to the train cars and the aged detective is trying to save his life, but since the boy rarely speaks and rarely understands English, all he sees is the crazy old man. The boy is always accompanied by a parrot who repeats strings of numbers. British spies keep trying to figure out the secret of these numbers, believing them to be a kind of code. This book even becomes a murder mystery because of the bird and his numbers. But Holmes is more interested in finding the kidnapped bird than the killer. I suppose retirement gives people a different perspective.

Throughout the story, people react to Holmes in different ways, but they seem to regard him as a relic of the past, a Victorian curiosity to have survived almost into the Postmodern Era. Yet, at the end, he comes to a very Modern, very un-Victorian conclusion:

The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings – the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted – had he not? – by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might so conclude, really, he thought, one might.

There were a few Victorian writers and thinkers who saw the lack of meaning in the world around them, who understood that human meaning is a human construction, but they were largely disreputable (which is not to say that their books didn’t sell). Dickens was so successful because you could read his books aloud to your children without the fear of any unchristian ideas entering their heads. He was a social reformer, it’s true, but he always approached his unpalatable subject matter with circumspection. He wouldn’t have made his doubts so explicit.

Much as I find the Victorian novels’ certainty about the world so comforting, in my own mind I side with Chabon’s Holmes. We have the inborn need to bring order to chaos – part of my discomfort with children is their apparent comfort with chaos – but the order is essentially manmade, not intrinsic to the things we arrange. Why do I fold towels the way that I do, or keep them in the places where I do? It doesn’t matter to the towels. Left to themselves, they’d end up on the floor in a heap. They want to become an undifferentiated mass of terrycloth, and I’m standing very firmly in the way. One of the things that I find difficult about living with a family is that my ordering hand is not master here.

For all that this book is a mystery, and the subtitle links it to detection, it is not so much a story about finding as it is a story about losing. The boy loses his parrot. The minister loses his faith, and his son. Holmes walks into a clearing and for a few seconds cannot bring meaning to the shapes he sees – he loses his ability to interpret optical data. I suppose this could be my own sense to the book, since some of the lost things are found, but most of them are not. The numbers are a secret between the boy and the parrot, and not even Holmes discovers their sense. Life seems to be unravelling, which is not a sensation I particularly enjoy. And indeed, there’s some of that in my life – sleep is not knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care – I’d like to be able to bring the issues to a swift decisive conclusion, but that is not really realistic. By summer’s end, things will be done.

As you may recall, a few years ago I read Escape from Freedom, and quoted long sections from it in the coming-out blog. This volume claims to be an extension of that book, continuing from the discussion of authoritarianism and its attractions onto the subject of ethics. This book was written and published back in the 1940s, which means that he refers to all humanity as Man, so women may feel more connected by changing the pronouns to she and Man to Woman, though since the author is a man, he may refer to specifically masculine issues as if they were universal, and since I am also a man, I won’t catch it all the time. I’m sorry for any inadvertent sexism on my part. Another thing to note is that he uses italics like mad, so all emphasis in the following quotations is his, not mine.

This is a treatise on atheist ethics, and as such it really appeals to me. In Christianity, we are taught that ethics is largely a matter of pleasing the absent-yet-omniscient authority figure, sometimes out of love, sometimes out of fear of punishment. Sometimes the love and fear of punishment get mixed up together. However, removing the external authority from the equation, atheists are seen as people who cannot be trusted because they’re not trying to please the same authority. How can murder be wrong if there is no god to send you to hell for it? Well, as any experience with actual atheists reveals, a person who doesn’t believe in a god still has values, principles by which she lives her life. In many cases the atheist succeeds in Christian values better than Christians – atheists believe they are good because they do good things, while Christians believe they are good because their bad deeds can be excused.

Man can react to historical contradictions by annulling them through his own action; but he cannot annul existential dichotomies, although he can react to them in different ways. He can appease his mind by soothing and harmonizing ideologies. He can try to escape from his inner restlessness by ceaseless activity in pleasure or business. He can try to abrogate his freedom and to turn himself into an instrument of powers outside himself, submerging his self in them. But he remains dissatisfied, anxious, and restless. There is only one solution to his problem: to face the truth, to acknowledge his fundamental aloneness and solitude in a universe indifferent to his fate, to recognize that there is no power transcending him which can solve his problem for him. Man must accept the responsibility for himself and the fact that only by using his own powers can he give meaning to his life. But meaning does not imply certainty; indeed, the quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. If he faces the truth without panic he will recognize that there is no meaning to life except the meaning man gives his life by the unfolding of his powers, by living productively; and that only constant vigilance, activity, and effort can keep us from failing in the one task that matters – the full development of our powers within the limitations set by the laws of our existence. Man will never cease to be perplexed, to wonder, and to raise new questions. Only if he recognizes the human situation, the dichotomies inherent in his existence and his capacity to unfold his powers, will he be able to succeed in his task: to be himself and for himself and to achieve happiness by the full realization of those faculties which are peculiarly his – of reason, love, and productive work.

Here we see part of the journey my life has been on. I used to ‘abrogate my freedom and turn myself into an instrument of powers outside myself, submerging myself in’ church and the prescribed nuclear family. But, as Fromm points out, I was ‘dissatisfied, anxious, and restless.’ Still am, in many ways. I faced my fundamental aloneness, and still feel it acutely, but it still produces that feeling of panic that I need to get over. In the last five years, I seem to have been searching for another authority figure to take the place of the church that I lost, but rejecting in a panic all the ones that come along. Like Jane Eyre, I’m looking for another role as servant, but being choosy about the type of master I get. Yes, part of this refers to the job search, but it more closely describes my search for love. I want someone whom I can give my life to and who will take care of my needs in return. The fact that it’s not working doesn’t tell me my idea is flawed, just that I haven’t found the right man yet. Fromm disagrees. Meaning in my life isn’t going to come from masochistic submission, but from actively pursuing the activities that make me feel alive. The other day I was crocheting dish scrubbers out of veil netting for him to sell, and I realized that this type of commercial activity doesn’t fit Fromm’s definition of productivity; working on projects for my family does. I don’t want to be someone who sells; I want to be someone who gives. The things that make me feel alive, the most myself, are writing, reading, and making music. Teaching is good, but primarily insofar as it allows me to read and write, and help others to do the same. Fromm talks a lot about productivity, but gives the best definition near the end of the book:

In contrast, humanistic ethics takes the position that if man is alive he knows what is allowed; and to be alive means to be productive, to use one’s powers not for any purpose transcending man, but for oneself, to make sense of one’s existence, to be human. As long as anyone believes that his ideal and purpose is outside him, that it is above the clouds, in the past or in the future, he will go outside himself and seek fulfillment where it can not be found. He will look for solutions and answers at every point except the one where they can be found – in himself.

The only place we can find knowledge, especially ethical knowledge, is in our own minds. When we read or listen to someone’s ideas, we bring them into our minds and decide if we want to keep them. In the mind is the only place we can bring objects or abstractions to know them. So if we want to know something, like the meaning of our lives or the proper manner of living, we have to look inward, not outward. Being productive means using our abilities to create the best version of ourselves we can be. It means developing our abilities to their fullest extent. Unfortunately, there are some attitudes that prevent our complete development: the sadism and masochism that come from authoritarian attitudes, and the hoarding and marketing that come from capitalist attitudes. Fromm spends a good bit of space expounding on these blockages, and he predicts a lot of my behaviors in his discussion of masochism and marketing, but he also gives me hope:

There is no person whose orientation is entirely productive, and no one who is completely lacking in productiveness. But the respective weight of the productive and the nonproductive orientation in each person’s character structure varies and determines the quality of the nonproductive orientations. In the foregoing description of the nonproductive orientations it was assumed that they were dominant in a character structure. We must now supplement the earlier description by considering the qualities of the nonproductive orientations in a character structure in which the productive orientation is dominant. Here the nonproductive orientations do not have the negative meaning they have when they are dominant but have a different and constructive quality. In fact, the nonproductive orientations as they have been described may be considered as distortions of orientations which in themselves are a normal and necessary part of living. Every human being, in order to survive, must be able to accept things from others, to take things, to save, and to exchange. He must also be able to follow authority, to guide others, to be alone, and to assert himself. Only if his way of acquiring things and relating himself to others is essentially nonproductive does the ability to accept, to take, to save, or to exchange turn into the craving to receive, to exploit, to hoard, or to market as the dominant ways of acquisition. The nonproductive forms of social relatedness in a predominantly productive person – loyalty, authority, fairness, assertiveness – turn into submission, domination, withdrawal, destructiveness in a predominantly nonproductive person. Any of the nonproductive orientations has, therefore, a positive and a negative aspect, according to the degree of productiveness in the total character structure.

So, no one is wholly good or bad, and no one quality is absolutely bad. Everything I have and am can be used in constructive ways. I just have to be vigilant, to make sure that I don’t end up overly submissive.

I’ve been thinking about my relationship a lot lately, all the ways it isn’t working, why I’m still in it. He’s not helping me become the person I want to be. Part of it is his personality – he wants everyone in the house to be together all the time, which is natural to his Myers-Briggs type, but it means that he sees the desire for solitude as a disease. The things that help me become a better me generally require solitude, so I’m harming my personality with all of this together time in order to reassure him that nothing is wrong. Another issue is that he doesn’t enjoy writing, reading, or making music himself, so he doesn’t see the importance of them to me. I often see academics in couples, and I’ve wondered why that is. At one time I thought there was some snobbery involved, at another I thought it was just a lack of opportunity to meet nonacademic people. Now I’m thinking that it’s because academic work creates habits of mind that are incompatible with certain lifestyles. He and I aren’t working out, not because it’s anyone’s fault, but because we don’t want to develop the qualities we see in each other. There have been other warning signs that he’s not interested in keeping me happy, like when he said that he refuses to have a piano in the house, or when he told me that he could not handle me expressing my emotions all the time, or when he borrowed my child support money and didn’t pay it back. He always has reasons and excuses, but they all boil down to the fact that he’s not willing to nurture an environment where I can grow and be happy.

Why do I stay here, then? Because I can’t afford to live anywhere else. Living in the United States is expensive, and none of my jobs here really give me enough to live comfortably. I saved some money when I was in the Middle East, but that’s all gone now. I barely make enough to pay my bills, even though I’ve been teaching for ten years now. I’ve been making barely enough money to pay my bills for ten years. The state of education in this country is really depressing. A professor once told me that the primary difference in his life between being a student and being an instructor is that now he could afford to buy juice; or in other words, he made a little less than five dollars a week more than he did when he was on assistantships and student loans. And he was a department head at the university. Macron promised a home in France for all the climate-change scientists; I wish he’d do the same for English teachers.

I’ve been gearing up to apply for other jobs, and the gearing up process is lasting a lot longer than it should. In thinking about this, I’ve realized that it scares me, a lot. Not only because change is scary, but because I want to settle down and stop moving so much, but I don’t trust that life will allow me to do that. I’m afraid to make a change that I won’t want to change from. I’m afraid of ending up . . . anywhere, doing anything. I’m afraid of reaching the end of the story, when the wandering protagonist has learned his lessons, finds a home, and lives the rest of his long happy life in a few short sentences on the last page. I’m exhausted, but still afraid to slow down.

The assumption that man has an inherent drive for growth and integration does not imply an abstract drive for perfection as a particular gift with which man is endowed. It follows from the very nature of man, from the principle that the power to act creates a need to use this power and that the failure to use it results in dysfunction and unhappiness. The validity of this principle can be easily recognized with regard to the physiological functions of man. Man has the power to walk and to move; if he were prevented from using this power severe physical discomfort or illness would result. […] The validity of this principle is apparent with regard to psychic as well as physical powers. Man is endowed with the capacities of speaking and thinking. If these powers were blocked, the person would be severely damaged. Man has the power to love, and if he can not make use of his power, if he is incapable of loving, he suffers from this misfortune even though he may try to ignore his suffering by all kinds of rationalizations or by using the culturally patterned avenues of escape from the pain caused by his failure.

Physiological symptoms of unhappiness! Yes! I have those! I’m having a hard time sleeping lately, and I cough all the time. I’ve been thinking that it’s from all the second-hand smoke, but it may be from the stress of being unhappy in this relationship. [Cue “Adelaide’s Lament.”]

In fact, happiness and unhappiness are expressions of the state of the entire organism, of the total personality. Happiness is conjunctive with an increase in vitality, intensity of feeling and thinking, and productiveness; unhappiness is conjunctive with the decrease of these capacities and functions. Happiness and unhappiness are so much a state of our total personality that bodily reactions are frequently more expressive of them than our conscious feeling. The drawn face of a person, listlessness, tiredness, or physical symptoms like headaches or even more serious forms of illness are frequent expressions of unhappiness, just as a physical feeling of well-being can be one of the “symptoms” of happiness. Indeed, our body is less capable of being deceived about the state of happiness than our mind, and one can entertain the idea that some time in the future the presence and degree of happiness and unhappiness might be inferred from an examination of the chemical processes in the body. Likewise, the functioning of our mental and emotional capacities is influenced by our happiness or unhappiness. The acuteness of our reason and the intensity of our feelings depend on it. Unhappiness weakens or even paralyzes all our psychic functions. Happiness increases them. The subjective feeling of being happy, when it is not a quality of the state of well-being of the whole person, is nothing more than an illusory thought about a feeling and is completely unrelated to genuine happiness.

I think about how things have changed in this last year with him. My job was a little uncertain, but I felt really good about myself, the way I looked and my ability to direct my life. Now, my job is secure, but I hate myself for having gained this much weight, and I seriously doubt whether I can make my life work or not. Even though I felt really hurt back then, I was still basically happy with myself; now, I’m just unhappy all the time. I love him, despite all the badness, but loving him isn’t making me happy or my life better.

The experience of joy and happiness is not only, as we have shown, the result of productive living but also its stimulus. Repression of evilness may spring from a spirit of self-castigation and sorrow, but there is nothing more conducive to goodness in the humanistic sense than the experience of joy and happiness which accompanies any productive activity. Every increase in joy a culture can provide for will do more for the ethical education of its members than all the warnings of punishment or preachings of virtue could do.

And of course, part of me thinks that I deserve this, because most of my brain is still wired in the authoritarian manner of my youth. I’m working at overcoming it, but it’s going to take a lot of time yet. Notice how the authoritarian mindset reverses mental health and illness:

Paradoxically, the authoritarian guilty conscience is a result of the feeling of strength, independence, productiveness, and pride, while the authoritarian good conscience springs from the feeling of obedience, dependence, powerlessness, and sinfulness. St Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin have described this good conscience in unmistakable terms. To be aware of one’s powerlessness, to despise oneself, to be burdened by the feeling of one’s own sinfulness and wickedness are the signs of goodness. The very fact of having a guilty conscience is in itself a sign of one’s virtue because the guilty conscience is the symptom of one’s “fear and trembling” before the authority. The paradoxical result is that the (authoritarian) guilty conscience becomes the basis for a “good” conscience, while the good conscience, if one should have it, ought to create a feeling of guilt.

I want to be happy in a simple, straightforward way, not in this twisted weird guilt/goodness trap. I’ve often thought that amnesia would be a good solution, as in When God Was a Rabbit. Fromm points out that happiness means valuing ourselves, that creating happiness requires making our own happiness a high priority, but my default habit of mind is to find someone I can make more important than myself and lose my independent self in creating their happiness. Which is toxic and doesn’t work. I think this is why I really am happier spending a lot of time alone – then, I don’t have anyone else’s happiness to attend to. It’s great, because keeping other people happy is exhausting.

I thought I was doing better, mental health-wise, but I clearly still have a lot of work to do.