News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: "Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" IVa: Despair and Tabula Rasa

Friday, January 11, 2008

"Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" IVa: Despair and Tabula Rasa

The last section left open the question about how or why Gloucester might be in despair. Even were the schematic of anxiety and despair that Kierkegaard constructs true, whether Gloucester is in despair is highly questionable and counter-intuitive. Isn't he a dynamo of anger? Isn't he in constant motion to destroy and wreak havoc?

Granted, maybe, he acts like a man possessed by envy and hatred, even evil. His control of his circumstances and his manipulation of reality and illusion is immensely conscious and disturbing. But despair--doesn't despair mean someone who is the victim of circumstances rather than their master?

Laurence Olivier's portrayal of Gloucester emphasizes this world-domineering, Machiavellian Gloucester. In the following clip, you find the deformed Gloucester laying out his plan for assuming royal power in cold, almost clinical detachment. His passion rises to heaven but it is a the passionate outburst of a ravening objective beast that only humans can be.

Hence it is that there can be two forms of despair properly so called. If the human self had constituted itself, there could be a question only of one form, that of not willing to be one’s own self, of willing to get rid of oneself, but there would be no question of despairingly willing to be oneself. This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that [p]ower which constituted the whole relation. Indeed, so far is it from being true that this second form of despair (despair at willing to be one’s own self) denotes only a particular kind of despair, that on the contrary all despair can in the last analysis be reduced to this. If a man in despair is as he thinks conscious of his despair, ... and if by himself and by himself only he would abolish the despair, then by all the labor he expends he is only laboring himself deeper into a deeper despair. -- Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death1
This notoriously difficult statement from Kierkegaard's pseudonym, Anti-Climacus, contains an algebraic description of the despair that Gloucester manifests. As Kierkegaard notes, we often assume that someone in despair is a victim. They suffer at the hands of external events. They cry out from the depths for help. Whether by their own decision or by accident, they suffer pain and for no fault of their own. They suffer passively.

Yet Kierkegaard also says that those who act to mold and shape events can be in despair. 2 Counter-intuitively, it seems, a person in despair can indeed act from despair in a way that gives the impression, the illusion one could say, that they are in control of events. When I am in control I bring to bear the resources of the psyche to shape the world of things into a place where I find security and prosperity, shelter from mortality. The man of action, the usurper seems intensely in control and s/he is master of fortune, seducer of men and women, molder of history itself.

For sure, it's not uncommon to say that someone acts out of despair. If I face financial ruin, I might embezzle funds out of despair to save myself. Or I might kill myself to forestall further physical or psychological pain. This appears in Kierkegaard's quote above. Suicide is a way out for a self that is in disrelationship with the side of its social being, where it undergo the pain and suffering associated with social opprobrium.

Kierkegaard is keen to point out that it's the self--the process that relates the two sides of human being and attempts to balance them--that is in imbalance, out of whack. This being out of whack, though, occurs not simply because I am unrealistic by placing too much emphasis on imagined possibilities, for example, whereas my circumstances constrain and impose limitations. The imbalance occurs because the way that the self takes this fantastic being and relates to others outside my self in a fantastic way. And as long as I do so, I live in a fantasy world of my own creation.

The person considering suicide wants not just to be rid of their physiological being; they want to be rid of their self. In another place, Kierkegaard emphasizes that it is this self, what we have come to understand as our psychological side, that the suicide despairs over, not the physiological being per se. I despair of being the person I am, not who or what I want to be. I want to be happy but events overwhelm me. I want to be rich but I am poor. I want to be beautiful but I am not. Who I want to be, which ultimately means who I am, and the fact that I am not that person causes me to despair.

The monitoring and coordinating process, the self, can be conscious at various levels of awareness of those things that come into play to help me or derail me from being who I want to be. We can see this in the fact that things influence us in ways that we don't at first recognize. After these experiences we understand that we were not conscious of determining factors--whether psychological or external--things and their role in forming me.

After a crisis, for example, I see that I acted for reasons that were self-deceptive or short-sighted. While there are different levels or degrees of consciousness; while I can understand why I do what I do in varying degrees of rational and emotional clarity, I can never understand outside of space/time, as many scientists and philosophers trying to be scientists seem to imply we can. We cannot, contrary to della Miradola's ecstatic theo-philosophy become either angels or gods. This lack of ultimate distance is cause for despair. I realize that i do not have the control that i though I did in determining who I am.

We are always in time/space, always engrossed by the world, enmeshed in a play of various forces that encompass external and internal dimensions. Crises bring this inability to grasp the world in its entirety to the fore. In cases where these crises cause suffering or where what I thought might happen and what does actually occur clash, I find that the entity I call my self stands questioned to its core.

In cases of extreme crisis, where this rupture between self-understandings is most catastrophic, I find that I cannot abide the person I am or have become. I might therefore seek to be rid of the self that I am but don't want. The underlying assumption here is that there is a self that is given, a being that somehow exists before I was born. We are beings given, as noted, in biological, historical, and environmental factors.

We often forget about the givenness, the social, cultural, and other facts of our existence that determine how we think and act. The Enlightenment notion that I am born a blank slate, a tabula rasa, is so prevalent as an underlying assumption for how I relate to who and how I am that it informs what choices and decisions I can make in being who I am.

This conception of a self infinitely varied and changeable forms a foundation stone of the modern state and its cultural background. We grow up believing that all we have to do to be happy is to change ourselves, gain some means of self-transformation and thereby redefine myself, as the pop psychology so prevalent in consumer culture puts it.

In the context of Richard III, we see this notion of change and rebellion against the givenness in full play. Gloucester is a man who is misshapen from birth. Yet through intelligence, will, and imagination he has designed a plan to demolish all obstacles such as accidents of birth that stand in the way of his gaining the crown. He understands the variability of human nature, knows how to simulate love when he hates, feign sorrow when he exults over someone else's suffering, play the fool to distract from the knife that lays bare in his hand.

He will do anything and everything to attain power. Yet, if the preceding is correct, he is not simply an unleashed force of nature that does what it is naturally designed to do, as a Nietzschean might say, but is instead manifesting a state of being that is ultimately self-deceptive about itself.

In the next section, I will continue this discussion about despair, relating it to the Enlightenment notion of the tabula rasa and the politics of despair.

1 The Lowrie translation capitalizes the word power; the Hong trns. does not. The non-capitalized version reflects the text. It is not obvious that Kierkegaard is necessarily speaking of God here, as the Lowrie upper case would imply. I say this, because Kierkegaard notes later that humans often identify as powers other entities that are not divine.

2 The following remarks about active despair build on Hannay's exegesis of Sickness Unto Death. See, for example, the introduction to his own translation of that book.Back To Text

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