Jan/Feb 2012 Nonfiction

Epimetheus, or Pandora's Box

by Jascha Kessler

You're safe inside the movies
where everyone has his place
in the night among the stars
and voices and music play
what you want to know again
and you see yourself alive
doing what the others do.
          —from "The Mad," a poem by Jascha Kessler (1964)

The Self. The Self? The denotation of the word Self remains what it was in its ancient Sanskrit form. Today's dictionary defines Self as that which distinguishes one person from another; as personality, character, individuality; as an individual's consciousness of being, of its identity; as its subjectivity; its ego; its own interests, welfare, advantage; its personal or private concerns.

These lexical definitions may sound like givens of human nature. At this juncture in the history of the West, however, looking back at the cataclysmic episodes of creation and destruction marking the vicissitudes of the past two centuries, it may be asserted that such terms may no longer be immutable, let alone certain philosophically or psychologically. Indeed, they may no longer be taken as an adequate adumbration of a human being. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, "After such knowledge, what hope?"

Our Twentieth Century opened with an intuition of the Self as unique existent, an absolute singularity subsisting in solitude or alienation, depending on one's social or political Weltanschauung. The Self had been treated as a numerable thing, an object imagined by Eighteenth Century economic notions as an item to be statistically manipulated by market analysis. It was still regarded in 1900 as being solid, identifiable as the newly-modeled atom. Yet, at the very same time, even this modern conception of Self as an independent, individual person was suddenly a dubious formulation. And, if there is one place where its presumed substantiality was put into serious question, it was in the Vienna of a century ago.

We have had well over a century in which to absorb Sigmund Freud's discoveries and develop his teaching, which is basically a theory attempting to delineate the construction of the Self, to describe its dynamics, the processes of its formation, its struggle towards substantiation in reality. We have learned that it is a temporal, historical process, as much intra-psychic as interactive with other Selves and their invented institutions: e.g., Family and Society. The individual, as psychoanalysis understands the case, struggles incessantly to realize a Selfhood that seems forever beyond attainment, a struggle the outcome of which remains problematical from womb to tomb, even under the most favorable circumstances imaginable. We have always understood that even the profoundest of works of art do not propose real selves, only imagined models contained within the person, but never containing the person. Moreover, no creations of human beings may withstand the analysis of reality that Freud established. His thought, a superb contribution to civilization, was immediately perceived as devastating to human illusions, and so it remains after 90 years. Everything we are is by its very nature to be understood simply as human, perhaps as merely, in Nietzche's words, all-too human!

* * *

Everything flows, Heraclitus says; nothing is ever the same. For the sake of discussion, therefore, let us accept the universe of psychoanalytical discourse in which an understanding of the Self argues for an historicist perspective. Such a perspective demands a relativism that sees civilizations and cultures as braiding the strands of the experience of varying generations over centuries to produce a chain of transpersonal stereotypes. Those characters are the models of Selfhood imposed upon or provided by all societies to each person. Psychoanalysis recognized, for instance, the conflict between the always fortuitous vicissitudes contingent upon the individual and the innate process of development of a Self. The theory was promptly recognized as constituting per se a subversive element, if not actually a mortal blow to the absolutes of State and Religion, that is, to the practice of any particular cult. As for Humanism, a mainly secularist philosophy, an ineluctable obstacle is posed by Freud's theory of a developing Self that cannot be realized, let alone "completed" over a lifetime. In any case, whatever were the hopes of Western Humanism, secular or religious, they were forever demolished, although not by psychoanalysis alone, as events of the 20th Century were amply to demonstrate.

The habit of cataloguing an individual's character is perhaps as old as humankind itself. People usually have been defined according to situation in groups, and their social locations were prescribed by age, gender, function, aptitudes, behavior, and so on. Language itself abstracts such categories and reifies them, so that a personality (stereo)type was what the individual incorporated and projected. The mechanism is identification, and identification would appear to be the universal, primordial psychic mechanism.

The presumption of solidity, of a stable thing called personality that differentiates all individuals, has long been fixed in Western thought. Despite such an unexamined belief in the Self as Self-same, so to speak, that such might not be the case seems to have forced itself only gradually on Sigmund Freud. He had of course in youth seen in Charcot's clinic and in his own early treatment of hysterical patients that the Self is scarcely co-extensive with the person. At first, Freud ventured to suppose that there might even have occurred some sort of "evolutionary" change in people over the millenia. He clung for a while to the hope that possibly biological mutation would explain the loss, even the extinction as he saw it, of the unself-conscious innocence that took its joy in life itself, an outlook that seemed to him the mark of the Classic Mediterranean world's pagan exuberance. In suggesting that his contemporaries might essentially be different from people of the Classical epoch, he was probably recalling the perennial ideal of a lost Arcadia or Eden. What prevailed, however, was his view that personality is mostly a process of formation through the interplay of libido and circumstance, that is, Nature and Nurture. Of course, he had to abandon that fable, because he was already creating the hypothesis of the Oedipal stage of growth, preparing himself to look the Medusa in the face; he was descending into the inner life of the Self's thwarted development, its malformations, perversions, inhibitions, and analyzing the etiology of the neurotic personality as revealed in the sexual life of his patients. Freud's later stoic pessimism describes the Self in terms of conflict as much intra-psychic as interactive with other Selves past and present, as a struggle with their inherited creations, as the agon of Person, Family, and Society. And that was part of his final understanding: that the outcome of such a terrible, lifelong effort is eternally problematical from the Womb to the Tomb. Perhaps there was never any possibility of a "normal" development for human beings.

We have had a century in which to absorb Freud's teachings and develop their discoveries. For my purpose here, it should be observed that, at least in the various Western cultures where the psychoanalytical study of human personality has more or less taken root, the thing we call the Self has been subjected, at the very same time, to systematic attack. The Self has suffered degradation and destruction by powers vested not only in certain persons, but in social systems increasingly subjected to such persons. It is horrible even to contemplate their possession by a few individuals! They have controlled entire nations through novel means ranging from brutal force to the application of exquisitely-refined technology. And controlled them far more than was ever dreamt of by emperor or king. During the Twentieth Century, such powers have been deliberately exercised on a scale so enormous and overwhelming that the individual is more insignificant than a gnat is to an elephant. Ours in short has been the epoch of warfare against the Self Freud attempted to delineate, to understand, and by means of therapy to assist towards the realization of a fully individual being who would be characterized not only by autonomous rationality, but true self-possession.

Totalitarianism, perhaps the greatest modernist adventure of the last century, was not simply directed against "Humanity," as today's sentimental cant likes to put it. The true goal of the totalitarians from the beginning was a radical project that could be realized only by waging war against the Individual in order to obliterate the Self. It was well-camouflaged as a species of socialism, as a revolution of the proletariat, although neither they nor the middle class was informed by their leaders that their victory meant to lay the foundation for a titanic social construction designed to fuse Family and Society. Both Nazi and the Communist theory and practice are evidence of that intention to replace the entire inheritance of history by a command structure that would forcibly impose its timeless, collectivist system of Nurture. It is hardly accidental that psychoanalysis was anathema to revolutionaries of all kinds, since the motivations of the idealist as well as the criminal are promptly reduced to the problematic by its method.

If the deliberate, totalist campaign against the Self seems to be dissipating today like the nightmare of evil it truly was, does it mean that we are out of danger? One hears the rumor of a "new world order." One sees petty tyrants running rampant, gangster-style, in 3rd-world nations, or mulcting the profits of global energy corporations, which monies seem not to trickle down to peasants in terms of bread alone. If there were to be such a novelty under the sun, moreover a new democratic world order envisioned as the logical creation of "market economics" (for that's what's currently advertised by some Western leaders), is there any reason for us, as writers, to expect that it will also provide a favorable environment for the "self"? Not at all. Unhappily, there may be better reasons to fear that the future will manifest quite the contrary result. Not that Literature (with a capital "L") will not retain its inherent power to express and project imagined possibilities. As has always been true, its fictions are formative for the potential Self. But—Literature is locked in a deadly contest with another "species," so to term it, of fictions: I mean, the fictions offered by the Media. Our melancholy question today is: Which fictions are, well... true? Which fictions are the real ones?

Some psychoanalysts are aware that the danger signs are clearly visible and should be read (at least, so far as therapeutic practice is concerned). They have been learning that their contemporary patients' psychic life is predominantly composed of a pastiche of conscious and unconscious fantasy selves, derived from saturation in the Media since earliest childhood. Since we are by now quite experienced as to the nature of the universe presented by the Media, it suffices to remark that, although its offerings may be far more various, phenomenologically speaking, than the forms of communication available before the advent of broadcasting 90 years ago, it is anything but rational or systematic in its influence on the formation of an individual's psychic architecture. It is also ubiquitously present today, radiating to everyone from hospital cradle to hospital deathbed. Furthermore, while it often includes many traditional genres of dramatization, it does so in much-reduced formats. Certainly, as compared to the written word, the forms of the Media are also drastically reductive. Not that any one presentation is necessarily confused; the opposite is true, since skilled technique articulates the content of every second. Nevertheless, the experiencing of the Media over years is as a whole absolutely unstructured, incoherent, and, by any rational analysis of reality, all but chaotic.

From a psychoanalyst's point of view, the consequences are profound. No longer operative, let alone meaningful, are all the identifications with those fictive persons immanent in a culture's hoard of venerable archetypes, those long-established cultural models out of which the individual's fantasy life was once upon a time composed. From a writer's point of view, the consequences are profoundly unsettling. It's not simply a matter of competition with the Media for the attention of an audience. Instead, it's become a question if communication is possible with persons whose judgment of reality does not resemble that of people who lived before this era, people whose imaginations responded to what fictions once were. Furthermore, what sort of communication is it? Certainly what seems to have been severely decreased by television viewing is people's imaginative cognition—although not as a result of what they have watched on the screen! What happens to children is that they usually pass from believing that everything presented by television is real to a later conviction that "nothing is real." In other words, the "world has become crowded with the fictive."

Again, from the psychoanalytic perspective, fictions are part of the process by which we invent our reality, a reality that includes other real persons. "Fictions do not stimulate life, they are a source of life." From the writer's perspective, however, today's question is, Whose fictions? The answer comes, the fictions of the Media, which are all entirely fictions per se, whether what is shown is drama, or simulated action, "raw and unedited" "actuality," or even non-fictional narration, like news or documentation or instruction, or a walk through an art gallery. The problem also is, What kind of fictions? The answer is: Fictions incommensurate with reality, because the only "reality" viewers brought up in the television age have incorporated into their psychic life is that of the fictive reality of the Media.

Nearly a half-century ago, the philosopher Martin Buber seems to have summed up the disaster of our entire 20th Century when he wrote words that convey the dilemma of the writer today. Thinking that the world should in truth be "...a dwelling place of the spirit," he asked, "But what does that word signify? What can it mean in an age which calls every facile babbler a representative of the spirit and which at bottom seems to have no choice except to see in the life of the spirit either a highly-developed means of combat or of amusement?"

Writers have always assumed that the audience or a reader was another "real" person with a "real" Self. In our time that "real" self is no longer the kind of "real" Self it seems to have been in the past, certainly not that Self proposed only yesterday by Freud and his followers. Their conception of the Self was that of an autonomous, integrated, mature being. But in today's societies, populated increasingly by people with fictive personalities, personalities formed and developed through the agency of the fictions offered them by the Media, that ideal Self may well be a lost possibility. In short, it seems to me rather a tenuous proposition at best that the way towards the achievement of Self is now cleared and open. Even our new-found political and economic freedoms do not offer grounds for any such revived expectation. Rather, as I would suggest, the contrary is the case. The Media that have so influenced the Twentieth Century have only just commenced to extend their reach over the entire globe. In our Twenty-First Century, their effects will saturate the populations of the world.


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