Monday, October 18, 2010

Coping with anti-anxiety

CLR James, You Don't Play with Revolution:

It is wonderful to read what he says about the "they," what he says about idle talk, and what he says about everydayness. And he says he is not attacking anyone, abusing them, or using these words in an opprobrious sense. That is how "they" are, that is exactly how they live.

With the moment of vision you begin to see exactly what you are, you begin to know what it is you are in and what decisions you have to make. And I must say, I have been applying this, not only to ordinary existence ... I am also in the habit of applying the moment of vision -- the drifting along with everybody else and then the moment of vision and discovery of the authentic "there" -- to a national unit.

I find that I can apply it as a historical method. I am not going to attempt to prove it. The only thing that proves a theoretical method is what you get from it. And if, ultimately, I use this method and get a certain amount of clarification of national units, etc., I use it. That's all I can say.

"The evasion of death which covers over, dominates everydayness so stubbornly that, in being-with-one-another, the "neighbors" often try to convince the "dying person" that he will escape death and soon return again to the tranquillized everydayness of his world taken care of. This "concern" has the intention of thus "comforting" the "dying person." It wants to bring him back to Da-sein by helping him to veil completely his ownmost nonrelational possibility. Thus the they makes sure of a constant tranquillization about death. But, basically, this tranquillization is not only for the "dying person," but just as much for "those who are comforting him." And even in the case of a demise, publicness is still not to be disturbed and made uneasy by the event in the carefreeness it has made sure of. Indeed, the dying of others is seen often as a social inconvenience, if not a downright tactlessness, from which publicness should be spared."

-- Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

* * *

Heidegger tells us that we need courage to live our anxiety about death. I say "live" because to feel anxious about death prompts this flight response into unfeeling. Culturally, we are numb to death; this tells us something about ourselves. Death is an elementary truth, but we can't face it.

Orienting ourselves toward death is one way to orient ourselves toward truth. But the problem in sustaining a relationship with truth is that we are thrown into an everydayness whose terms are expressed as the "they." Consequently, we have to choose our own "being-in-the-world" -- by possessing the courage to know ourselves authentically, or knowing ourselves only in the "they." For Heidegger, authenticity -- what James calls "setting a pattern toward something peculiar to oneself" -- is achieved by maintaining a tension, a lived anxiety, about the truth of one's existence.

Many of us can relate to the "they" as consumerism. And one of the interesting things, if you've ever tried to "set a pattern toward something peculiar to oneself," is how isolating it can be. Not only do you have to try to sustain this tension, but you're orienting yourself toward something that has no external reference for anyone else. People ask "what's new?" and -- well, I don't know what. What do you tell them?


Anonymous said...

what's new?

mad men!

Quin said...

I'm not sure whether Anonymous is being simply facetious, or facetious while making a deeper point.

Still, while shared consumer culture has its limits, I would say that it can still be a useful language of expression from time to time. At least, if I use it to try to express something I feel is actually true in myself. E.g., returning to Mad Men, not "Can you believe that Don proposed to his secretary and left Fay in the dust after she helped him so much?!" but "It was painful for me to watch Mad Men yesterday. I couldn't help knowing that my ex was watching too, and wondering what she thought when Don left Fay for his secretary-- the situation was just too close to the way that I broke up with her", and so on, and go from there. Pop culture as a relatively low-stress springboard to dive into deeper things.

This is not to say it can be used to express all things. Back to the question you posed at the end, when it comes to expressing "a pattern toward something peculiar in oneself", well, clearly the language of pop culture won't be sufficient most of the time-- it's, after all, generally constructed with the express purpose of helping us to avoid talking about that kind of stuff. There's no easy answer I can see, except to do our best to start from some kind of True. The people who are already oriented in the same directions as you, will want to listen for long enough for you to maybe start to give them a few glimmers here and there of your inexpressible subjective feelings. And to all the others who just completely miss your point, well: we all rub off on each other, a little bit, without even meaning to. Simply by spending time together.

By the way, the next time someone asks me "What's new?", I think I'll try answering "Oh, you know, the usual-- Heidigger tells us that we need courage to live our anxiety about death... "

George Jones said...

Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,
Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death's fool;
For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn'st toward him still.

more here

JRB said...

Marvelous stuff, guys. Thank you.

Quin: I think you are very wise, pointing to a bridge between the two. I suppose I am commenting on the difficulty this poses for me personally.

It's one thing to want to figure yourself out; it's another to figure out how you will be with others -- both those who have figured themselves out, and those who haven't.

With people who haven't, it's like being afraid you will hurt them by being, or attempting to be, an authentic person. The more you are drawn into who you really are, the more you risk alienating the people around you. Unless you're really good at it; but I have some ways to go. "Interesting times!"

Anonymous said...

"The more you are drawn into who you really are, the more you risk alienating the people around you."

aha! i have struggled with the same thing, and after a while i've come to the conclusion that my relations with others must begin from a point of humility. i try to remain aware that appearances can deceive me. perhaps a person i assumed hadn't "figured themselves out" had, in fact, assumed the same of me, and was only trying to relate on my terms. maybe, as quin said, someone is using a presumed common ground to reach for something deeper.

are there people who wrestle less than we do with exactly these problems? isn't it vanity even to ask the question?

JRB said...

Very good, Anonymous. More to say about this soon!