Sunday, July 03, 2016

How do people come to know themselves?

One of the critical questions in Hindu philosophy is an existential question that people of any faith, or infidels like me, also worry about--or should worry about: Who am I?

I am sure that thinkers in cultures all around the world raised that very question.  The ancient Greeks, for instance, inscribed "Know Thyself" (well, not in English but in Greek, of course!) at the Temple of Apollo, and later Socrates declared that "the unexamined life is not worth living."


My summer readings, on top of the different bits that I read and blog about, are essentially my attempts to keep after that question of "who am I?"  Instead of abstract philosophy, which I don't much care for, I ask that question in the contexts in which I find myself, in relation to the situations that surround me, especially because of my conviction that there is nothing after death, and it is all in the here and the now.  Thus, blogging about the Ebola crisis, or the Syrian refugees, or tweeting about the fascist, are all more than merely about Ebola or Syria or fascism--they are explorations into understanding who I am.

In an essay about James Baldwin, the author--Nathaniel Rich--quotes Baldwin:
The difficulty is to remain in touch with the private life. The private life, his own and that of others, is the writer’s subject—his key and ours to his achievement. Nothing, I submit, is more difficult than deciphering what the citizens of this time and place actually feel and think. They do not know themselves….
Rich follows that with his own observation:
How do people come to know themselves? One way is by reading fiction. The profound act of empathy demanded by a novel, forcing the reader to suspend disbelief and embody a stranger’s skin, prompts reflection and self-questioning. But most people don’t read novels.
The novel does not refer to the likes of Ian Fleming's James Bond series or the old Mills & Boon series or Fifty Shades of Grey ;)  I am reminded of a forum on campus, a little more than a year ago, when one faculty colleague referred to the "great books" approach at St. John's.  Another colleague, who is so convinced about his superiority that he never can even remotely understand how much of  an idiot he is, remarked that it is all relative on what "great books" mean and then went on to list some of the books that he has read, which made many of us gasp and wonder how such an idiot could possibly inhabit the world of higher education.  I suppose he doesn't know himself!  Hmmm ... where was I before this digression? ;)

In that same Baldwin essay, Rich notes:
Baldwin made the racial question personal, reducing a society-wide problem to a matter of one’s private conscience. He was not alone in this approach, but he was alone in bringing a novelist’s sensitivity to bear on it. In Baldwin’s writing racism is, among other things, a failure of empathy.
Indeed.  Racism, hate, or any systematic put down of "those people" is a failure of empathy.  Anybody who has any sense of empathy will not be able to generate the kind of rhetoric that foams from the mouth of the contemporary American fascist leader, and his ardent supporters equally suffer from a lack of empathy.  As this piece notes:
Trump deals in hates that dare not speak their names
This fascist leader:
enhances the force of a whole series of interlocking hates—black hate, Muslim hate, woman hate, and “Mexican” hate.
I would think that the fascist leader's short fingers have never ever touched the "great books" and the novels that compel the reader to reflect on "who am I?"

I wonder what James Baldwin would have said and written about this fascist leader!


Mike Hoth said...

Oh, I don't know if those who speak hateful things are incapable of empathy. Woodrow Wilson created his League of Nations in an attempt to foster lasting world peace, but he was quite possibly the most virulently hateful world leader of his time.

I think I know the professor who is convinced of their superiority. In my time at Western there seemed to be one man who had many horror stories surrounding him. It seems that professors are not required to be empathetic or introspective!

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, Wilson was quite a paradox. Well, come to think of it, even the founders of the US--slave owners on the one hand, but talking the big talk about all men being created equal and about freedom ... Hopefully, we are moving in the correct direction even if the speed is a tad slow ...

Anne in Salem said...

And now that the 13+ hour days are behind me (I hope) and the harvest is routinely below 60 tons a day, I can read again for more than 20 minutes at a time.

I am continually fascinated by your need to think, to examine, to ponder. My work is sufficiently mentally challenging that I don't want to think so hard when I am home. I recognize the importance of some self-reflection, but with the aid of Russian novelists? My Henry James novel promised an exploration "of the growing awareness of the subjugation of women and the necessity for their emancipation." I confess, I don't see it. I have mostly enjoyed the book, the writing, the story (though it is a bit slow and doesn't come close to Jane Austen, also promised), but it isn't a conduit to ponderous cogitations as your books appear to be. Reading is entertainment. Shared yardwork is for the weighty issues of life. Last night's topic - how to feel Christ's presence when life is difficult - while deadheading daisies.

Sriram Khé said...

Were the daisies listening to Jerry Garcia? muahahahaha
(ahem, in case such puns are not natural to you, it is about "deadhead")

Good to have you back here after the long days at work ... Here is to hoping that this blog also provides you with something to think about, just like you folks commenting gives me something to think about ...

I suppose my need to examine life is why I was drawn to a PhD program and to then long to return to the higher education setting. Your comments then are reassuring to me that I am doing exactly what I wanted to do. It is like how the mountaineer (I forget his name) said he wanted to climb Everest because it's there ...

Ramesh said...

I am left scratching my head after this post which has jumped from one thought to another. I am now utterly convinced that I am totally unsuited to the stratospheric levels of academic life :)

Sriram Khé said...

Go easy on the head-scratching, old man ... when we don't have the luxury of hair on top, the scratches can be dangerous ;)

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