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!

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