23 March 2016

A continuation of a conversation

So here once more for me is Ralph Waldo Emerson and the essay “Compensation” (see my earlier blog post!). There I explored compensation as the ‘counterbalance, the rendering of an equivalent,” and suggested that in his essay Emerson adjudged opposites as the same. The good is contained in the bad and cannot be defined without identifying its opposite. But if the good contains evil then how does it become possible to define either good or evil?  Or I offered that compensation refers to the balancing of forces in the universe resulting in what I referred to as a cosmic equilibrium. Finally I said that compensation refers to that which is given in recompense, as some form of payment for something received. And I suggested that the implication I received was that payment must always be made: nothing happens without consequences and for those consequences  responsibility must be taken.
     I read in D.W. Winnicott’s essay “Aggression, Guilt and Reparation” an idea that seems immediately derived from (akin to) the ideas in Emerson’s “Compensation.” But Winnicott references Melanie Klein’s work, “The Depressive Position in Emotional Development,” where she situates destructiveness inherent to human nature and where Winnicott credits her with having “started to make sense of [destructiveness] in psychoanalytic terms.” Winnicott acknowledges the destructiveness in the human being and uses it as a way to discuss the development of a sense of gullt.
     Winnicott attributes the sense of guilt to the sense of destructiveness that every human inevitably experiences even from very early in a life. After all, Winnicott says, the infant does desire to ‘eat up’ the mother. Guilt arises from an acceptance of full responsibility for these destructive ideas in the development of the individual. But wonderfully Winnicott does not limit development to the child but includes the entirety of life. He says, “In dealing with this development [of the sense of guilt], we know we are talking about the whole of childhood, particularly about adolescence; and if we are talking about adolescence, we are talking about adults, because no adults are all the time adult. This is because people are not just their own age; they are to some extent every age, or no age.” Indeed!
     Winnicott argues that to be healthy, which is to say, to achieve integration, it is necessary to accept all of our feelings, even the destructive ones. Not to do so results in our need to project our destructive feelings outward and rather than accept our destructive feelings, we seek to find those objects of which we disapprove of outside of ourselves. However, there is a price to be paid for this projection: for the compensation, so to speak. “This price,” says Winnicott, “being the loss of the destructiveness which really belongs to ourselves.” That is, we lose the sense of integration that is our health.
     And so over the years and the oceans, Emerson and Winnicott suggest to me the same things. Emerson says that “every transaction must be paid for;” and Winnicott cautions that we must take responsibility for our destructiveness if we would be whole. We must take responsibility for everything, and the assumption of that responsibility is the payment we make for a healthy life.

17 March 2016

From Emerson's "Compensation"

I’m not exactly certain how I came to purchase the two volume complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1929), containing “all of his inspiring Essays, Lectures, Poems, Addresses, Studies, Biographical Sketches and Miscellaneous Works.” I am certain it was in the Used Books section of amazon.com and I think I must have needed it for some reason. Somewhere I quote something from the two volumes, but I can’t recall for what reason. I think it was the essay on Intellect . . .
     But I felt this week that I might return to him—if I could choose another moment to live in that my present one I would reside in Concord, Massachusetts when the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne, and Channing roamed the town and woods. I experience such pleasure in the time I spend there now in my imagination and intellect. And so yesterday I devoted a bit of the cloudy afternoon in “Compensation,” an essay in Emerson’s First Series. No particular reason for choosing that essay . . . but it satisfied.
     I want to think of two moments in the essay that struck me: I read best when I am struck by moments in the text. Usually these are moments when the text offers what I oft thought myself but ne’er so well expressed; or when the text contradicts my thought. Sometimes a thought burrows through some thickness to shed light on something about which I might have been considering or even dreaming. These fragments seemed to do it all. Emerson writes: “Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet has its sour; every evil its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse.”  Nothing is without its other, its opposite: nothing exists by itself. Emerson calls this state of things a dualism, suggesting that the world is split into Manichean opposites, but then it must also be true that nothing is what it seems to be but already contains its other. Everything is somehow connected to everything else even if only in language. Spinoza might have referred to these seeming opposites as various modes of substance: that substance is a unity. For Spinoza substance that which cannot be other: God.
     And the second moment in the essay continues this theme that I want to almost border on the ironic: if nothing is itself then what is it? Georgia Albert suggests that irony is the “simultaneous presence of two meanings between which it is not possible to decide.” Irony is not saying one thing and meaning its opposite: here irony is simultaneously the thing and its opposite. Its identity derives from its other. So if within sweet is the sour, then I have to ask of what does sweet consist? And vice versa. And then Emerson says, “There is a crack in everything God has made.” There is no perfection in the world, and everything comes with a price. This law is fatal, Emerson declares: “that in nature nothing can be given, all things are sold.” We must purchase those things we would have: we are not in Eden. Compensation.
     The OED says that compensation refers to “counterbalance, the rendering of an equivalent.” Here Emerson’s title refers to the balancing of what are considered opposites and rendering them the same. If compensation means the rendering of an equivalent, then good and bad are the same! Hamlet: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” And the OED says that in the field of Mechanics compensation refers to the balancing of forces, and the idea of compensation in Emerson’s essay might mean that though there is in the universe no perfection, the imperfections all result in some cosmic equilibrium. “The world looks like a multiplication table, or a mathematical equation, which, turn it how you will, balances itself,” Emerson writes. Interestingly, perhaps, whereas Einstein said that God does not play dice with the universe, Emerson says “The dice of God are always loaded.” The number always comes up the same.
     Finally, as Shakespeare developed the word (1606), compensation meant “That which is given in recompense, an equivalent rendered . . .” And this accords with Emerson’s belief that “every new transaction alters according to its nature their relation to each other.” No deed is pure: every transaction must be paid for: hence, the crack in everything. Every deed demands compensation: nothing happens without consequences for which responsibility must be taken.   

14 March 2016

Maintaining Ignorance

In George Eliot’s Felix Holt Mrs. Transome is described as having been in her youth thought “wonderfully clever and accomplished, and had been rather ambitious of intellectual superiority . . .” She had then enjoyed engaging in “sinful things,’ but maintained her balance and her social position by engaging in what she considered dull and meaningless, holding those dull and meaningless activities to be the good and true. The rest—those sinful things—were not good and true but were merely fun! They fulfilled her desire and interest but these things though exciting were not ‘good and true. Her sense of herself seemed based, then on compliance, a false self, a concept Winnicott explored extensively. Within the bounds of her social class she engaged in some rebellious, even scandalous activities, but she would maintain her anchor in tradition: in attendance at church and prayer despite her public ridicule of Biblical characters and her avowed interest in stories of illicit passion. Mrs. Transome would safely rebel, but she would never endanger her position in her social world.
     But Mrs. Transome had aged unhappily, and she has expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the course of her life. Her ironic youthful intellectual achievements now appeared as meaningless to her as did the idea of the good and true. Indeed, the ideal aspect of these intellectual matters seemed as nothing when they seemed absent of personal meaning; rather, they became matters for intellectual masturbation, I suppose—and, says the narrator, her ironic stance toward the good and and true seems not to have been of much value “in circumstances of temptation and difficulty.” Mrs, Transome had no moral sense of her own, and so as her life proceeded in ways she did not anticipate or even desire, she had no personal value system to help guide her way. That is, her belief that “. . . the notion that what is true and, in general, good for mankind, is stupid and drug-like” left her without a standard from which to act when her own personal life demanded moral action. Mrs. Transome’s early ironic stance proved inauthentic and of no use: it had all been mere show.
     Because all of Mrs. Transome’s hopes and dreams for herself and her life had evaporated, and she had become a bitter woman. The narrator writes of her: “She said to herself, in a bitter way, ‘It is a lucky eel that escapes skinning. The best happiness I shall ever know, will be to escape the worst misery.” Her irony truly held might have saved her from such depression. Her youthful abandonment of moral standards while yet maintaining strict cultural habits left her afloat when personal issues arose. Though she appeared to admit of contradiction, in fact she held to firmly to cultural expectations and behaviors: absolute obedience to them prevented her from pursuing any interest. Thus, her desires are all unfulfilled because she had admitted of no contingency. She has wished, but “wishing,” as Adam Phillips says, “is the sign of loss: wanting things to be otherwise because they are not as they are supposed to be.” Mrs. Transome remained lost, wishing for a different life and could not ever be content with the one she had lived. She could live in the present because she was stuck in the past expecting an impossible future.
     The question remains how to maintain our sense of ignorance so that we can continue to engage in our daily lives.