On Being Misunderstood

The Labors of Hercules

Part I: “Proteus” in Ulysses.

In James Joyce’s “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” Stephen Dedalis had been almost exclusively cerebral. Chapter three of James Joyce’s subsequent work, “Ulysses,” is entitled “Proteus,” a reference to the sea god who could achieve different shapes at will. The episode begins with a paragraph that introduces the reader to the challenges facing Stephen Dedalis in turning his gaze to the external world:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signature of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawarack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But then he adds: in bodies….”

In other words, when turning to a focus upon the external world, Stephen is faced with the “ineluctable modality of the visible,” the need to wrestle with, struggle beyond the simply perceptual mode of sensing the visible. How does one get behond the thingness of things, the way they look and occupy space? How, at the same time, can one face the need to wrestle with the limits of the intangible.

Joyce anwers this by engaging the reader in the Protean nature of thought, where items and events are many things at once: their past, their present, their meanings in another’s mind. Stephen’s ‘pure’ stream of consciousness in this chapter, as his thoughts twist and mutate in response to the outside world, also reveals an undertone of physical suffering, with recurring themes of mortality, decay, death and dying.

Part II. The Labors of Hercules.

Thoughts about Proteus also relate to one of the mythological Labors of Hercules, which was to wrestle with Proteus, the monster sea god who kept changing shapes from serpent to lion to bear. Hercules managed to hang on and hold onto Proteus despite the transformations.

The attempt to think and write about feeling misunderstood is faced with a similar predicament: one must hang on despite the anxiety over metamorpheses. Attempting to grasp the feeling of being misunderstood, the shame of being seen by others as a person one does not feel oneself to be, is very much like wrestling with Proteus: it keeps changing shapes.

Part III. The “Padded Cell.”

The feeling of being misunderstood leads to feelings of agony, along with wishes to express anger and rage. One defense in the face of all this is to, metaphorically, put oneself in a fantasied “padded cell” where it would be safe to unleash the agony and anger from within. The “padded cell,” in response to feeling misunderstood, also serves as a fantasy of being alone, unexposed to the gaze of others, protected against the shame of feeling misunderstood.

Thus, we might provisionally define the experience of feeling misunderstood, and its associated feelings of shame, as a strong sense of discomfort, a discrepancy between the way one imagines one is and the way one feels or imagines one is being seen; it is a discrepancy between the way one wants to be and the way one fears one is, together with the exhausting efforts to control the one way one appears.

Part IV. Fantasies of Invisibility.

The shame of feeling misunderstood can also drive the fantasy of invisibility. Being invisible functions to avoid conflict, hiding the wish to look or the very fact of looking or the pain of being seen as one does not want to be.

There may be a sense of freedom in fantasies of invisibility, but at the same time this engenders great anxiety about being overlooked, perpetuating a vicious cycle of feeling or being misunderstood. This situation is represented by Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” (1947). The protagonist slowly comes to realize that invisibility still requires the active participation of the one not seen.

However, lacking a solid inner stabilizer, the “invisible man” comes to confound his values of good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, which depend upon who happens to be looking through him at any particular moment. When he tells the truth, he doubts himself and is hated, but when he tries to give others the the incorrect, absurd responses that they want to hear, he is loved. When he presents himself as others want to see him, they receive a feeling of relief and security about and with him.

But the price is high, because in order to please others, to tell them what they want to hear, he ends up feeling like his “tounge [is hanging out and wagging] like the door of an empty house in a high wind” (Ellison, p. 573)

Part V. Oedipus on Being Misunderstood.

In response to the painful shame of feeling misunderstood, of appearing to be one who does not really know about what one says or does: “HENCE THEREFORE BE DARK!” Oedipus declared as he blinded himself for having descended to a state wherein he could not see what he realized he should have been able to see. Oedipus attempted to control the way he was seen by the people of Tebes and, in doing so, engineered his own downful.

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What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Quentin Crisp: Portrait

Again, I return to thoughts of Quentin Crisp and how, in his own highly eccentric manner, his life seemed to symbolize and attempt to promote a perspective (however paradoxical) of individuality, self acceptance and tolerance. Along this line, he once stated, “I have always lived my life in the profession of being.”

Many years ago Quentin wrote a short autobiographic note of his life, entitled “What Does It Mean to be Human?” The following is the text of that autobiographic summary:

When thinking about what it meant to be human, I was very sorry that I was not a scholar and had no philosophical point of view to express. More than not being a scholar, I am not really a human being. I do not mind spending long hours alone, and I never find something to do. This is part of my nature.

My sister reminded me before she died that she and my mother sat on each side of the fireplace and occupied themselves with darning socks, and knitting, and writing letters on their laps. I lay as a child on the rug between them, and once an hour one of them said, “Why don’t you get something to do?” And I said, “Why should I?” That is a question I cannot answer. Why should I have something to do?

Of course, there is the theory that time is money. It is an American theory: I am not earning money while I am doing nothing. Which is sad. But if I were rich, I would never do anything. I was asked by a paper, “If you suddenly had a million dollars, what would you do?” And I said, “Go to bed, and never get up again!” This was a great disappointment to the people who asked me the question. But idleness is my only occupation, and people are my only hobby.

If I regard what I think is human, and perhaps I was asked precisely because I am not a human being and, therefore, have a detached view of the subject, I would say it was a preoccupation with the idea of death. The reason why people do not live alone and do not spend hours doing nothing is because they can hear time ticking by. Then they develop hobbies, which drive them mad. You may ask them, “Why do you do this?” They ultimately say, “Well, it helps kill time.”

I don’t want my time dead. Time is meant to be lived!Those who are not hopeless are worried that one day their lives will end. And, if you live long enough, of course, you long for it to end. That’s been my desire in recent times. I only hope to become extinct. But before all that, you must try everything. Have children. Behave in such a way that monuments are built to you. Rule the world! Have streets and theaters named after you. Write your autobiography. These are ways to staying alive, and this seems to be a preoccupation with being human.

When I was younger and was not ill, I didn’t mind how long I lived. Now that every step of my life is painful, I long for death. If being human has any other special aspect it is that in every human being there are two people. One who sits in judgment on the other. The worldly, the doing person, acts irresponsibly, or nobly, or wisely, or foolishly, according to the mood or the situation. But inside him, further away, is an abstract spiritual being who never changes and who sits in judgment on him.

This situation becomes evident when we hear people say, “I was ashamed of myself.” Who is ashamed of whom? It is this duality between the active living organism and the contemplative inner-self that sits in judgment that constitutes the whole human being. This is, I think, what constitutes a human being.

Quentin Crisp

Georges Rouault Lithograph (1931)

Rouault: 1931

There is a Rouault woodcut print (obtained many years ago) hanging in the living room area of my home. It appears to be representative of Rouault’s early religious artistic work. Out of curiousity this afternoon, I was attempting to learn more details about it. Of course, that is a barren, superficial explanation of my interest.

More than idle curiousity, the motivation probably had more to do with some wish to reach out for something transcending the more mundane details and demands of everyday life (to the realm of “faith” or “belief”). Put more directly, the wish was probably a type of avoidance, escape, fantasy or retreat to some form of creative imaginagion. Alas..I could find nothing about the woodcut on the internet.

The print has a large, shadowed picture of Christ’s face in the middle, and a face looking at him on each side. Those faces look somewhat menacing, or at least deathly skeletal. The style is similar to prints from both Rouault’s “Passion” and “Misere” series.

The closest suggestion to what this print looks like is the one pictured above. This Rouault print is a lithograph fronticepiece for a book of prose by Marcel Arland, published in 1931 (as a limited edition of 216 copies). It is, to the best that I could discern, an untitled work.

For biographic notes on Georges Rouault, as well as examples of his work, please visit: http://wwar.com/masters/r/rouault-georges.html/

Paul Ricoeur: On Human Action and Suffering

Phenomenology and Hermeneutics

Paul Ricoeur, whose explorations of the fundamental questions about human existence made him one of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th century, died at the age of 92 on May 20, 2005, in Chatenay-Malabry, outside of Paris.

At the time of his death, Dr. Ricoeur was the John Nuveen Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he had taught from 1971 until his retirement in 1991. Among his best-known works are “Freud and Philosophy” (1970), “The Rule of Metaphor” (1977), “Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences” (1981) and “Memory, History, Forgetting” (2004). Dr. Ricoeur’s most recent book, “The Course of Recognitions,” will be published posthumously in December, 2005.

Dr. Ricoeur’s work ranged over an astonishing range of human experience, including: myths and symbols; language and cognition; structuralism and psychoanalysis; religion and aesthetics; ethics and the nature of evil; theories of literature and theories of law. All of his writings were informed by his lifelong concerns about and explorations of the forces that serve as the foundation of human action and suffering. Russell Arben Fox has provided a recent thoughtful personal commentary on Ricoeur’s philosophical perspective and its reception within the academic world.

Ricouer’s studies of the perception and interpretation of reality as laden with meanings that are inevitably embedded in social context may be viewed as important parallels and contributions to the important development of contemporary dialectical social-constructivist perspectives.

John Paul Gustave Ricoeur was orphaned at an early age. His early higher education studies began at the University of Rennes and he received a doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1950.

Ricoeur served in the French Army during World War II and spent five years in a German prison camp. During his internment, he managed to continue his academic work, translating the work of the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl into French with his tiny handwriting in the margins of Husserl’s book. The prison camp became a place of such intellectual ferver that the later Vichy regime granted it accreditation as an official degree-granting institution.

Just last year, at the age of 91, Dr. Ricoeur was awarded the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences. The award, which carries with it a $ 1 million prize, is considered to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for the humanities. Dr. Ricoeur’s acceptance speech for the Kluge prize stands as an immense monument to both the lasting acuity and humility of his great mind throughout the very last years of his long, very rich life.

Finally, Dr. Ricoeur was revered as one of our more ardent and vocally active social pacifists; thus, in addition to his scholarly contributions, Ricoeur will also be mourned for the courageous role he played in the realm of moral activism.

George W. Bush, The Burgeoning Conservative Nexus and The Evangelical Crusade: Revisiting Leo Strauss

The Young Hare: Albrecht Durer

A recently released Amnesty International report accused the Bush administration of condoning “atrocious” human-rights violations, in turn diminishing its moral authority and displaying a global model that encourages abuse by other nations.

The accusations cited the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the manner in which prisoners have been kept in detention at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba), and the return of prisoners to countries known to practice torture as evidence that the United States “thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights.”

In Bush’s subsequent White House news conference, he commented: “I’m aware of the Amnesty International report, and it’s absurd. It’s an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that is (sic)–promotes freedom around the world. When there’s (sic) accusations made about certain actions by our peope, they’re fully investigated in a transparent way. It’s just an absurd allegation.

In terms of the detainees, we’ve had thousands of people detained. We’ve investigated every single complaint against (sic) the detainees. It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of–and the allegations–by (sic) people who (sic) were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble–that means not tell the truth. And so it was an absurd report. It just is. And, you know–yes….”

There was a strikingly self-righteous and cavalier tone in Bush’s suspiciously simplistic dismissal of Amnesty International’s fundamental questioning of the present American regime’s basic moral grounding. This was quite troubling and aroused further thoughts for me.

It reminded me of a recent article that talked about three kinds of conservatism: the conservatism of faith, the conservatism of doubt and the conservatism of fundamentalism. The conservatism of faith was commonly dominant in Republican discourse. This conservatism states conservative principles, framed as eternal insights into the human condition, as a matter of truth. These truths are assumed to be universally valid and true.

The conservatism of doubt, on the other hand, wonders how anyone can be sure of whether his/her view of what is moral or good is actually true. Such conservatives are not nihilistic anarchists; their alternative is a skeptical, careful, prudent approach to all moral questions. They are suspicious of anyone claiming to hold the absolute truth, and instead openly recognize the moral and cultural pluralism of a democratic society.

Alarmingly, however, the Bush regime, perhaps under the influence of the evangelical religious movement, seems to have embraced the conservatism of fundamentalism. This is a type of conservatism that sees itself as a vital and powerful crusade. Crusades, however, are not means of persuasion; they are means and strong forces of coercion. Thus, it is no accident that the new Republicans stress getting rid of obstacles to their objectives: within the court system, the mass media, and through political gerrymandering the electoral landscape to ensure that few opponents, including presidential nominees, will have any future in the Republican party.

There is an often forgotten subtext to this whole movement, and this is that one of the most influential men in the emergence of Republican power and its movement toward a quasi-religious crusade is said to be the late Leo Strauss, the German immigrant political philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The power of Strauss’s students, and those who have in turn studied under them, upon the growth and direction of the Republican Party in Washington is a well-documented fact. His followers have been credited with providing American neoconservatism with its distinctive qualities: its emphasis upon crisis, its aversion to liberal tolerance, its rejection of pluralism, its insistence upon nationalistic superiority, its religiousity, and more.

However, far less is known about the degree to which these Straussian power brokers have misunderstood his teachings and distorted his legacy. Strauss actually had little to do with promoting a particular political party, nor any model of political “crusade.”

For Strauss, being conservative implied, more crucially, that optimal political actions depend upon proceeding with a kind of thoughtfulness characterized by careful introspection and depth, as well as being deliberative, cautious, attentive to detail and non-impulsive. He was not known to teach adherence to one American political party or another. Strauss was more interested in examining the great political writings of the past and teaching his students a “new” way to read important texts. He was well known for repeatedly appearing in front of his classes and venturing to minister to his own as well as to his students’ ignorance by simply asking, “What does this mean?”

Dr. Strauss’s openness to the virtue of prudence was accompanied quite naturally by a sense of wariness: keenly cautious, attentive and watchfully prudent. A testimonial to this sense of wariness was the copy of Durer’s famous watercolor, “A Young Hare,” that he had on his office wall. He particularly liked the picture, he said, “because the hare sleeps with its eyes open.”

It has been said that great minds are often, if not always, as great in their simplicities as in their complexities. Strauss greatly admired Winston Churchill’s historical work, “The Life and Times of the Duke of Marlborough.” In line with this, Strauss revealed his capacity for simple directness perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in his eulogy of Churchill:

“The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power. The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant–this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.”

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