3.27.2009

doozy

first a short update, for those of you who don't read the notes on each entry (i do, and respond to all of them as best i can). then we get at the meat of this thing. delicious meat.

i went to the doctor's Friday and reported all my symptoms, making sure to let her know that, while some of them may have been purely psychosomatic (the throat-closing thing was, i'm pretty sure, made up), most of them were not (i have definitely been edgy, and my hands were definitely shaking uncontrollably, and she noticed both of those things as soon as i sat down).

we made the decision to drop down to 20mg of Geodon before weaning off that and then added Lamictal, which she said probably will not make me feel fluffy or anxious. it does have a bonus side effect of possible kidney damage, but A) there will be a definite non-psychosomatic side-effect of a rash if that does start to happen, and B) if i haven't killed my kidneys with alcohol by now, there's not a chance in hell that some measly little pill is going to.

ooh! and i get to have suicidal thoughts ("suicidal ideation"), maybe! no, but really, folks. i am psyched about trying Lamictal. i have high hopes.

all right.

today, with the help of research tools provided by the University of Phoenix online, let's all try to wrap our heads around...

"Mental Illness, Religion, and Narrative: Thoughts on the Linear Conception of Self"

Part I. Religion, Philosophy, and Soul

in the last essay, we stumbled upon, and indeed ended on, the idea of a type of person or personality which is more prone to mental illness, and possibly more prone to becoming a poet, a philosopher, or a practitioner some other such gloomy and macabre profession, like black magick or retail. from here forward, we'll call this mythical creature "the gifted melancholic," partially because i think it's apt, and partly because i really like all the permutations of the word "melacholy."

but does such a beast even exist? or, like the chupacabra, is it a weird amalgamation of different critters, quite possibly the stuff of legend and folklore? i don't know if these are questions we can answer, as they appear to be tied in rather closely with the discussion of whether the self as a singular, or at least linear, entity, and the issue is far from being decided one way or another.

let's start, then, with a review of different conceptions of the self throughout history and across cultures, shall we?

in the Tao Te Ching (roughly translated, "The Book of the Way and its Virtue"), Lao Tzu writes that

Knowing others is wisdom.
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force.
Mastering the self requires strength.

which is all well and good, but doesn't really offer us much insight as to what the self actually is. it seems to be a statement more about wisdom and enlightenment, strength and force, that about the self. here, the self is not defined, but seems to be presented as against "others." one is enjoindered to know the self (a very common enjoinder), although the reasons why seem rather murky. he then goes on to say:

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.

(a different translation has it as "He who stays where he is endures. / To die but not to perish / is to be eternally present.")

here we have a conception of self that seems to stand outside of time; if one can "embrace death" with the every fiber of one's being, the possibility of the eternal endurance of a singular viewpoint open up. whether this is conceived as "you," "he," or even as the whole of all creation, there is something that endures, the subject of the verb "to be." perhaps this is an aspect of what is meant by "the Tao."

Eastern philosophy (including Confucianism and Buddhism) in general tends to downplay the importance of the self or individual, treating the human psyche or personage as nothing more or less than an element within an indescribably complex interplay of being, while still acknowledging its reality in a qualified way. the self is neither separated from the wholeness of the world nor is it a permanent fixture, but, like everything else, constantly shifting and changing. (the I Ching, major text of Confucianism, is usually translated as "The Book of Changes," and is a systemic and sophisticated, if somewhat obscure to this particular reader, document used to find or create order in the random fluctuations of the universe.)

Buddhism is a little different and deserves to be treated in its own section, which i will limit to a very few paragraphs in the interests of space and time (pun not intended).

Zen Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism based upon direct, experiential paths to enlightenment as opposed to scripture, approaches the self in a manner that seems somewhat difficult for students of Western philosophy (or, more broadly speaking, the Westernized worldview) to understand at first. the most concise explanation i have stumbled across is from an aptly-titled article by Jay B. McDaniel called "Zen and the Self." in his introductory paragraph, he writes:

When one attains enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, at least two things are realized. First, one realizes that the deepest level of one's life - what in Zen is called the "true self" - is always here-and-now. And second, one understands that this true self, even though here-and-now, is always changing.


he also posits that "the true self discovered in enlightenment is the ordinary self or 'everyday mind' of each and every human life." afterward, he immediately does a little back-pedalling, claiming that each mind indeed has "unique qualities." Buddhism, or what I have read of it, seems to feature quite a lot of these "turns," subtle qualifications or even contradictions, as defined by the rigors of Western logic. for those with a mindset more attuned to accept paradoxical opposites which are simultaneously true in some sense, this is easier to swallow.

for me, it is a little difficult. is there really a "me," more than the sum of my parts, or not? i always want a clearly-defined, yes-or-no answer. however, it is important for Westerners to keep in mind that this ease of mutually true contradictions is a cultural difference, not proof that Eastern philosophy is somehow flawed.

cultural differences, to be honest, abound. we Westerners, students (directly or indirectly) of Plato and Aristotle, are so familiar with the idea of a "self" in the sense of a self-contained entity that sees and thinks and experiences, as a discrete entity and not something integrated into the fabric of the universe. this habit of thinking is quite difficult to unlearn, as it is a very fundamental precept, bound up in what we consider to be the very center of our being, in fact with the way that we perceive and understand all sensory data.

a final few words on Buddhism before we leave it and begin to move toward the West. Buddhism does contain a doctrine, called anatta, which tells us that the self is illusory, a trick played by our brains, in collaboration with our sense organs, nerves, and so forth. however, Buddhism (and, adds John Horgan, "its parent religion, Hinduism") is a religion with a deep-seeded belief in the immortal soul, which migrates from body to body each time we die. nothing, in my opinion, indicates a propensity for belief in a singular selfhood than a willingness to ascribe souls to bodies. in the case of Buddhism, almost everything has a soul.

now i just want to touch on Plato and Aritstole really quickly.

Plato, in the Republic, puts forth that we have three distinct souls. in Phadreus he compares the self to a charioteer drawn forward by two horses. while few of the thinkers following from Plato will go this far, most of them do divide the self into three distinct faculties - namely the faculty of thought or intellect, the faculty of the will, and the faculty of feeling or desire. these correspond to virtues of wisdom, courage, and moderation. (C. C. W. Wilson illustrates the extent of the influence of this formation of the self by pointing to the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy's three friends each representing one aspect of the self.)

for Plato, this is division is applied for the purpose of guiding the conduct of human life by drawing parallels between the individual life and the society at large. here, the individual self is not integrated in a web of being, but instead in human institutions. again, self is juxtaposed with other, but this time in a different way.

Aristotle, influenced (we can only assume) by Plato, said that the soul (which, i think, we can take as synonymous with the self) resides at the center or core of a being but does not have a separate existence. for instance, if a knife had a soul, cutting would be the soul of the knife as cutting constitutes the "essence" of what it is to be a knife. but of course we cannot separate "cutting" from the knife, just as Aristotle believed (in opposition to Plato) that the soul was not really something separate from the body.

a final note: i think that the prevailing view of self or soul in this country today is definitely a Judeo-Christian one. the soul comes from God, enters the body at conception, and goes back unto God upon the death of the body. the soul lives inside the body but is separate from it (in Genesis, God breathes the breath of life into Adam's nostrils, thereby "ensouling" him). each life is special because there is a divine plan for it.

so, what have we learned about the self from this inquiry? unfortunately, next to nothing. the only thing we could have been said to learn was that the conception of self differs from time to place, with Eastern philosophies emphasizing an interconnectedness between self and world while downplaying the significance or even existence of a singular, self-contained "I," and Western philosophies emphasizing the special virtues of the self, even taking it for granted as a truism that there was a self that you could locate and describe through rational discourse. we have also learned that, whatever their differences in the formulation, each of these branches of human thought has acknowledged either a self or a human thought construction which can be called "the self."

so perhaps "what is the self" is the wrong question. maybe the question should be re-formulated to ask "is there a self?" and, if we can agree that there is, then we may try to pinpoint it.

if we could answer "yes" to the previous inquiry (and to talk about something, whether you believe in its reality or not, you must assume that it does indeed exist and we can talk about it), another would immediately arise, namely: "is the thing that people call 'the self' really the same thing at all? are we talking about the same thing or different things?" that is, of course, if we postulate that the self is a thing at all.

now, to continue thinking about the self, or rather to continue to think about it using words, we have to make these two assumptions.

which brings me to narrative.

Part II. Writing, Romance, Linear and Non-Linear Narrrative

(coming soon. i just wanted to get this post out there first and foremost. look for an update around the end of the week, probably Saturday, as this is the only day this week I don't have class.)






3 comments:

Tim said...

i can't give you any feedback of substance (again), but i'm excited for the next installment. also, spend more time in cleveland when my car is functioning.

Phillip said...

I can give you some feedback on the substance. It has been my sole mood stabilizer for about 7 years. It's worked just fine for me, but I think the range of disorders it treats is pretty narrow. Definately the best part was the lack of unforeseen consequences. Like, how i didn't feel slow or dumb.

elly_or_esther said...

I have a quote from a book that I want to let you borrow at some point.

"Depression is awful beyond words or sounds or images;... It bleeds relationships through suspicion, lack of confidence and self respect, the inability to enjoy life, to walk or talk or think normally, the exhaustion, the night terrors, the day terrors. There is nothing good to be said for it except that it gives you teh experience of how it must be to be old, to be old and sick, to be dying; to be slow of mind; to be lacking in grace, polish, and coordination; to be ugly, to have no belief in the possibilities of life, the pleasures of sex, the exquisiteness of music, or the ability to make yourself and others laugh...

Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you're irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You're frightened, and you're frightening, and you're 'not at all like yourself but will be soon,' but you know you won't."

I know it's a long quote, but after I first read it, I had to stop and reread it a few times.