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Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Conflict Between Image and Being

The dichotomy between what we appear to be and what we in fact are, between image and being, carries great weight in the age of Facebook, of glossy magazines, of clothing outlets on every street corner. Not that everyone is aware of this dichotomy. Over 300 years ago Blaise Pascal pointed it out, and I think we would do well to stop on occasion to mark his words – for while he was at it, he drew attention to a disturbing tendency in human nature to drift towards the former, appearance, as its center of gravity:

“We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being: we want to lead an imaginary life in the minds of others, and so we make an effort to impress. We constantly strive to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one. And if we are calm, or generous, or loyal we are anxious to let it be known so that we can bind these virtues to our other being, and would rather detach them from our real selves to unite them with the other. We would happily be cowards if that gained us the reputation of being brave. What a clear sign of the nothingness of our own being”! (Pensées 806)

How can we so magnificently miss the mark? As though we did not know where our existence was located! As though we sentient beings we capable of mistaking our personal being for what was outside of us! It is an absurd situation, really, as absurd as a scenario in which we all walked around saying, as my dad once said, "I exist a little to the left of me!" 

If the reader's abstract intuition has not been awakened by now, I am going to have to ask him to give it a hearty kick. For none of this should be too counter-intuitive, however abstract. It is in rather obvious (in fact all of this should be sounding pedantic) that being trumps appearance, that ultimately it is one's being that matters most. Above things (cars, money, Pokemon cards...), above states of being (peace, happiness, generosity...), above meaning (why I go to work, why I play golf, why I am your friend...) stands one's manifold, interdependent, complex and uniquely stylized (like a slice out of a big pizza) and uniquely experienced being

Thus “What matters most”? is a different question than “what matters most to individual persons?” which is in turn quite a different question than “what matters most to me?” But because each and every time it will be and can only be a single individual – not a group of individuals or some “cosmic life force” or un-sentient entity – answering the question, the answer cannot vary: what matters most is one’s singular, unrepeatable and personal/private being – what we so easily call what each person “is”. 

But a quick distinction must be made: this does not denote what a person thinks or intuits himself to be, nor what a person does, says, or appears to be. No, “what a person is” denotes neither more nor less than exactly that, what a person is: it encompasses the weight and substance of his existence as experienced (and not experienced) and freely expressed (and not freely expressed) in time and space (and any other dimension we happen to be in). We do not have any definite angle on this "being" in order to determine it for ourselves, to pronounce upon it or describe it in completeness – such is accessible only by God. Now, some may say action or appearance are in fact the only being of a person – but even if that is the case, it is still being that is sought to be discerned, and being which matters finally. This is not to say that appearance does not directly influence or "become" being (this is a complex and dynamic dichotomy after all); but again, as protons carry the weight of atoms, being is the substantial category around which all meaning revolves. Ontology, then, as the language of this ultimate value, must be the queen of all introspection. 

Coming back to the main point: it seems that this is a crucial truth not often dwelt upon in a world where we boast, compete for positions, motivate ourselves by what others might think, etc. – our social lives are a dealing in appearances, not being. Pascal has many incisive words on this subject, not to mention Nietzsche, who, along with Kierkegaard, writes about the masks of “the demonic” – that insane individual who stakes his entire existence on a self-generated image, a lie. “Who has not for the sake of his reputation – sacrificed himself? –” (Beyond Good and Evil 94). “What? A great man? I always see only the actor of his own ideal” (95). “What a person is begins to betray itself when his talent declines – when he ceases to show what he can do. Talent is also finery; finery is also a hiding place” (99). Rene Girard, in turn, writes that mimetic desire, the determinative desire operative in human nature, is at its core always a desire to be another – a yearning to be something, a yearning for a new self (though interestingly we would never desire a break in consciousness, an incoherence inherent in desire which itself betrays the futility of wishing to be another). Despair at its height, describes Kierkegaard, is where “desperate will to be oneself” and “desperate will not to be oneself” converge. Despair, in other words, concerns the impossibility of one being anything other than oneself, even through death, and the stubborn refusal to be anything else but the image one has made of oneself. Image and being are one in despair.

It seems all desire and knowledge, since they play themselves out always and only in individual persons, concern at their heart what each individual is, a person’s unique, private-public Being. Jean-Luc Marion writes in The Erotic Phenomenon:

“Why then do we prefer, even at the price of restraint, to know rather than not to know? … in this case, we do not desire to know simply in order to know, but in order to experience the pleasure of knowing – we know in order to enjoy knowledge, in order to enjoy the act of knowing. Thus we do not desire to know, except for the sake of self-enjoyment. Knowledge becomes the simple means, albeit the most efficacious and economical, to such an enjoyment of self. Desire itself, more essential than the desire to know, springs forth – desire, which, even in the knowledge, only desires self-enjoyment…  Certainly, the desire to know is directed upon the known or the knowable – but above all and finally to the benefit of the knower. Confirmed as more essential than the desire to know is the desire to safeguard oneself, that is to say, to enjoy oneself” (11-12).

Marion’s comments are not as tangential as they might at first seem, for though they are wrapped up in his own larger argument for the primacy of love, the primacy of love has direct bearing on the primacy of being.

Importantly, there is nothing “selfish” about this in the colloquial sense. Note that I do not write "the primacy of one's individual being." But how could this be, when, after all, one's being supposedly involves only oneself? Well, to make a long story short, to write off this ultimate concern with being as “selfish” is decadent and life-denying; it could only be the stultifying misunderstanding of an ontological-aesthetical philistine. For we were never talking about "individualism," but about the weight of one's life where it is actually lived: outside and in-between appearances. 

It does not take a philosophy degree to understand this. Jonathan Shay makes the same general observation in his book on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Achilles in Vietnam. He quotes a veteran: "It's unbelievable what humans can do to each other. I never, in a million years, thought I would be capable of doing that. Never, never, never." The concerns that the returned soldiers express are not about what they seem to be, about what they are perceived to have done. The soldier's Shay sees have the same complaint: no one wants to know what actually went on. Back in the States, no one will listen to their stories. These soldiers feel viscerally the supremacy of being over seeming: they are tormented by the being, by what they have done, what was

I don't know what the point of all this is. I'm not really going anway or saying anythign new – almost everyone knows it anyway. It's just that, the way things look, it seems that hardly anyone knows it.