Thursday, June 20, 2013

Perspective, Part Nine: "Almost Human"

Is it possible to look at yourself objectively?  To see yourself for who you are?  Speaking for myself, I have my doubts.  Still, I like to think that I am more optimistic about the possibility than, say, La Rochefoucauld, who offers this uncharitable (but, alas, likely true) insight about us:

"Whatever discovery was made in the country of self-love, many unknown lands remain there still."

La Rochefoucauld, Maxims (1678), translated by Stuart Warner and Stephane Douard (St. Augustine's Press 2001).

Yes, as I survey the public world around us -- politicians, bureaucrats, social scientists, media mouthpieces and the lot -- I know all too well what La Rochefoucauld means.  No shortage of self-love and misplaced self-assurance there.  And no evidence of self-awareness or self-reflection either.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

The first tiny step is not to think that you are any different.  I have quoted Czeslaw Milosz on this topic in the past, and he bears repeating:


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

William Ratcliffe, "The Conservatory Window"

                Almost Human

The man you know, assured and kind,
Wearing fame like an old tweed suit --
You would not think he has an incurable
Sickness upon his mind.

Finely that tongue, for the listening people,
Articulates love, enlivens clay;
While under his valued skin there crawls
An outlaw and a cripple.

Unenviable the renown he bears
When all's awry within?  But a soul
Divinely sick may be immunized
From the scourge of common cares.

A woman weeps, a friend's betrayed,
Civilization plays with fire --
His grief or guilt is easily purged
In a rush of words to the head.

The newly dead, and their waxwork faces
With the look of things that could never have lived,
He'll use to prime his cold, strange heart
And prompt the immortal phrases.

Before you condemn this eminent freak
As an outrage upon mankind,
Reflect:  something there is in him
That must for ever seek

To share the condition it glorifies,
To shed the skin that keeps it apart,
To bury its grace in a human bed --
And it walks on knives, on knives.

C. Day Lewis, Pegasus and Other Poems (1957).

William Ratcliffe, "Attic Room" (1918)


Chris Matarazzo said...

And, then, there is Steinbeck, who, in his journals, wrote often of his fear that everyone would one day discover that he was a fake -- that he really wasn't much of a writer. This could have been false humility; writing with a knowledge that he was already a giant of literature and that people would one day be reading his journals and he could plant that little seed to paint himself as a real "regular guy." But I get the sense it was real. There are people (I'm included ) for whom no accomplishement can wipe out self-doubt. Still, others could finish a page in a coloring book and count themselves among the Dutch masters. I think that, if we keep being honest with ourselves, there is hope of seeing the fellow in the mirror clearly. I guess. I don't know.

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: it's very good to hear from you again -- you always get me thinking.

When it comes to self-doubt, I'm in your camp. Satisfaction at an accomplishment usually disappears in 30 seconds or so.

As for those who have an unrealistic view of themselves (especially those in the younger generations), the increasing emphasis in our lifetimes on "self-esteem" at all costs might have something to do with it. I suspect that in your profession you've been an unwitting witness to the self-esteem movement in all its glory.

But I'm not claiming sainthood here: how can we help but be self-absorbed? As you say, all we can do is try to look at ourselves honestly and, at a minimum, not do any damage to those around us.

Thank you very much for visiting.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Well said. I couldn't agree more about the impact of the "self-esteem movement" in schools, Stephen. And, you;re right, I do see it. I tell my students, as often as possible, that they simply cannot do "anything they set their minds to." They can do a lot, but not "anything." It's good to be realistic, sometimes. Maybe realism and self-doubt are the best ballast, after all.

John Maruskin said...

How can you be immersed in all these wonderful poems and glorious art and be so cynical about the human condition? "How can we help but be self-absorbed"? I know lots of the "younger generation" (I'm 62) who are absorbed in permaculture, saced geometry, experimental music and performance. Evade self-absorption by engaging with this wicked world. Read Frank O'Hara, "Steps" first. Nope, sorry, The Day Lewis poem is fine, and compelling, and as Ripley says so aptly in "Alien," "it''s not a distress signal...It's a warning."

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: thank you for the follow-up comment.

I don't want to sound like an old codger ("When I was young we had to walk 5 miles to school in the snow . . ."), but disappointment and coming in less than first is probably good for the character. As opposed to: "Everybody is poet" or "everybody is an artist" or "there are no losers; everybody gets a trophy." I'm not arguing for self-laceration, mind you. Just, as you say, "realism and self-doubt."

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Maruskin: thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Yes, perhaps "self-absorbed" is too strong. But I'm afraid I'll still have to stick with something along the lines of "self-interested" or "self-preoccupied." Of course, I'm always willing to make an exception for saints and anchorites. Of which there are few.

As for me being a "cynic," I would respectfully disagree with that. After all, one person's "cynicism" is another person's "realism." For instance, Thomas Hardy is often called a "pessimist." But I think that he was a realist, and one with a high degree of empathy and compassion for his fellow human beings. This saves him from cynicism.

Thanks again.

Chris Matarazzo said...

John and Stephen -- I've been thinking about this. Can't a lover of poetry delight in the potential of human creativity and simultaneously be critical (I have never seen Stephen as "cynical") of the human condition? (For that matter, can't cynicism be part of the poetic world if it wants to? I have always thought all emotion and reason is fair game for poetry.) I think we are all self-absorbed. It's how we become ourselves and maintain our own identities. As long as we don't become self-obsessed, we're okay. As for John's implied paradox of being immersed in great art and being cynical, I would submit that as much as great art adds to our world, it is still, necessarily,a representation of only a small percentage of human beings. Yes, great art should boost one's opinion of human potential, but, sadly, it is not representative of "the human conditon." Sorry about the late response to this -- I'm like a dog with a bone when a question takes hold...

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: thank you for the thoughtful comments -- I appreciate the time that you took to think about this topic further.

I agree that this may partly be a matter of nomenclature: self-absorbed vs. -obsessed vs. -interested. For instance, as a non-political libertarian, I have no problem (mostly) with self-interest (as long as it doesn't harm others). But -- like you, I suspect -- I see a culture around us with a great deal of noxious self-obsession. (This self-obsession is often found in do-gooders/social engineers/nannies who think that they know what is best for the rest of us -- now THAT is cynical. You and I have discussed this malady before.)

I also agree with you that although great art (music, poetry, painting, etc.) is beautiful and exhilarating and represents humans at their best, it is not cynical to recognize that human nature (my own included) often falls far short of that.

Finally, it's nice of you to say that you've never thought of me as cynical -- I like to think of myself as, say, undeceived and realistic, but hopeful.

Again, thanks for your thoughts (which have helped me to re-examine my own thoughts).