News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: "Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" III: The Architecture of Despair

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" III: The Architecture of Despair

The idea of invisibility seems to be something primitive enough to the human psyche as to ask what it is that seeks to hide, from whom, and why. In the preceding sections, I noted that Shakespeare's Richard III exploits the chasm between what others see someone do and say and the underlying reasons or motives that might be impelling to do so. The notion of an interior space or thing existing apart from an external world has come under philosophical attack.

Without going into the details of this important debate, I will simply assume in the following that the chasm exists, in whatever way it does. In doing so, I will continue focusing on Gloucester, but this time from Kierkegaard's reflective psychology. This psychology breaks from the traditional notion of a separate entity that somehow exists apart from social, biological, and political forces active in human life.

[I]t is inconceivable that it has not already happened that by a generatio aequivoca [self-procreation] our generation has itself given birth to its hero, the demon, who ruthlessly puts on the dreadful theatrical piece that makes the whole generation laugh and forget that it is laughing at itself. Indeed, what other value does existence have than to be laughed at--when one has already attained the highest by the age of twenty. -- Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trns. Hongs, p. 101
Gloucester is a man eaten to the core by resentment and hatred of those whose image of him makes into a less-than-human stump of a man. Cursed by life itself with a deformity that moves others to laugh in secret, Gloucester marshals his formidable self-awareness and profound understanding of psychology to turn that comic effect he produces in others onto the laughers themselves. He attacks human hypocrisy and social convention, turning it on its head, gutting the seamy underbelly of self-deception and lies that people tell themselves.

Within the microcosm of the play, it is difficult to apply the ferocity of Gloucester's actions in their social, political, and individual dimensions. What is especially difficult is seeing how the individual act embodies these dimensions in such a way that we are for the most unconscious of their influence. Gloucester's self-consciousness can be frightening in this respect. Perhaps gaining insight from his position at the margins of society, as well as his being the brunt of jokes and ridicule, he

In some ways, Gloucester is the prototypical Shakespearean fool, a person who sees the hypocrisies and vanities of life and turns his insight into jokes and irony. While it is true that Gloucester laughs at existence, his immense Machiavellian skills and thirst for power turn his actions into a horrible and terrifying joke that would threaten to turn creation itself into a farce. He wants to harness that laughter and derision thrown at him throughout his life and turn it back onto others not simply as bon mots or fool's wit but siege engines undermining the foundations that support the very beliefs we tell use to organize and channel reality into easily understood concepts and values.

Something of the farce that Gloucester tries to make of life and the continuing joke he sees life as comes, I think, in the following scene depicting his death.

Gloucester has seen into the nothing, that abyss at the core of existence where all is allowed and nothing is real except the stand a human takes. It is Kierkegaard who has schematized these psychological processes. Contrary to much of western philosophy, Kierkegaard's analysis of self-formation in relationship to social, religious, and ideological constructs undermines the notion that these are somehow eternal. The self, or whatever it is that human consciousness of itself is to be called, is a task that finds no certainty in anything other than its own desire for or flight from the freedom to exist.

Gloucester demolishes the crutches and sophistry we depend on to keep ourselves from seeing that abyss or appropriating the responsibility to make ourselves who we are. For Kierkegaard, the tendency of most humans is to react in terror at the thought that the social conventions that support us are only provisional constructs. While we are attracted to this freedom, we also fear it and run as far away as we can in the opposite direction, grasping at every banister or jetsam and flotsam that might float our way to keep us from having to face this freedom. We then lose ourselves in innumerable ways in mindless and senseless behavior.

These remarks about Gloucester lead in a direction that some might find unexpected, at least from within the psychology of capitalism (more about this later) that Kierkegaard undertakes. That is, Kierkegaard takes this notion of absolute freedom as a preliminary stage in living an authentic life. Anything less is simply one or another form of self-deceit, according to Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard recognizes the genius that is Gloucester. Yet, as he is more than willing to admit, this genius is demonic. It is so not because it's a dumb or ignorant person who has no self-awareness. Instead, it is a demonic genius that is self-aware not only of its foibles but of the very freedom and power that gives it this self-awareness.

For Kierkegaard, humans are bio-psychic assemblages which can be constructed in varying degrees of adaptation to the social and physical environments. What brings these pieces together, so to speak, is a sense or awareness that the freedom to put them together resides in the person whose various components--the biological, historical, and physical processes--form not just the world outside but our own attitude to that world.

For Kierkegaard, this self-awareness of the various sides to what is to be human is called the self. It is a recognition and understanding of the relationship between the physical and psychological sides of human being. A key aspect of this awareness is the need to maintain a balance between these elements. They represent not only the very biological processes known from empirical study but also the values and beliefs that one builds up based on experiences of limitation and freedom, dream and reality, possibility and necessity. This self attempts to balance the various needs, desires and memories into a viable being in pursuit of happiness.

But the self is not simply a combination of the physical and psychological. There is also the very background against which this self acts and finds itself. For the various elements described above will lead only to a fragmented being without a guiding pattern, without the love and friendship that complete the whole. This pattern or guiding pattern is the other in whose face I find myself being seen and recognized for who I want to be and believe I am. Much like the android in the movie Blade Runner, the creature wishes to know its creator. For humans, these are family. When they are left, those we look to to acknowledge us and to whom we look to gain status and patterns of molding our behavior are friends and heroes.

The disrelationship of any of these elements causes despair. This notion is often associated with situations where we have no recourse to attaining something, whether that be safety, health, or goods. For Kierkegaard, however, the spiritual dimension of despair relates to the entire relationship humans form with their world, others, and themselves. Since the self is a relationship of various elements, internal and external, despair can occur at any level. People exhibit more and more despair and therefore suffer more the higher one attains consciousness of the factors comprising the self and the responsibility you have in coordinating them.

I will discuss the notion of an image and the role in plays in forming the self in the following section. This is significant especially in the context of political and historical factors that contribute to who we are. In the process, I hope to show how Gloucester exhibits that type of despair that is prototypical in a capitalist society.

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