Saturday, May 13, 2017

The progressive right to self invention

This is apparently a universal, not particularly Jewish, topic. Except that the Jewish tradition is a leading example of those mentioned in the conclusion, that have survived for millennia and have every hope of enduring for millennia still.

I’ve extracted the following from two essays* by David P. Goldman (also known as “Spengler”). The excerpts distil, for me, the essence of Goldman’s thesis, which, as usual, I find most illuminating and thought provoking. 

In these essays, he conflates the concept of a search for meaning with that of inventing one’s own identity, which could be a distraction from my primary focus: on the notion on self-invention. When Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, refers to the notion of "man's search for meaning", I believe that he meant for us to search for, and discover, the bedrock meaning inherent to our individual being, as a result of our heritage or circumstance.  I don’t think, as Goldman apparently does, that Frankl was referring to a search for a meaning that is ultimately invented by the individual, in isolation. 

So here goes, in Goldman’s words, with the focus on the notion of self-invention…

...One big idea unifies all of Nietzsche's [intellectual] offspring -- the Marxists, the Freudians, the French Existentialists, the critical theorists, the Deconstructionists, the queer theorists -- and that is the right to self-invention. That is the cruellest hoax ever perpetrated on human beings, for we are not clever or strong enough to reinvent ourselves. To the extent we succeed, we become monsters.

In the Judeo-Christian past, human beings had a destiny… People knew that their impulses must be subordinated to the requirements of God and nature. 

Since the French Revolution, progressives have sought to overthrow the regime of obligation in favour of the right to self-definition...

If you choose your identity at whim, your life has no meaning. That is true in the most parsimonious sense of the word: if you can arbitrarily decide to be a gender-fluid bestialist as well as a F to M to F trans-entity, then your life can "mean" any number of different things, all of them equally arbitrary.

…In the brave new progressive world, life means whatever you want it to mean. It is up to you to invent a meaning that suits you, which you may change whenever it occurs to you to do so.

… If you need to invent [meaning] for yourself, you must first reject what previous generations handed down to you…

There is something perverse in [inventing] the meaning of life. It implies that we don't like our lives and want to [invent] something different. If we don't like living to begin with, we are in deep trouble.

…People have a good reason to look at life cross-eyed, because it contains a glaring flaw - that we are going to die, and we probably will become old and sick and frail before we do so. All the bric-a-brac we accumulate during our lifetimes will accrue to other people, if it doesn't go right into the trash, and all the little touches of self-improvement we added to our personality will disappear - the golf stance, the macrame skills, the ability to play the ukulele and the familiarity with the filmography of Sam Pekinpah.

…[to invent our own identity] is the great pastime of the past century's intellectuals. Jean-Paul Sartre, the sage and eventual self-caricature of Existentialism, instructed us that man's existence precedes his essence, and therefore can invent his own essence more or less as he pleases. That was a silly argument, but enormously influential.

Sartre reacted to the advice of Martin Heidegger (the German existentialist from whom Jean-Paul Sartre cribbed most of his metaphysics). Heidegger told us that our "being" really was being-unto-death, for our life would end, and therefore is shaped by how we deal with the certainty of death. (Franz Kafka put the same thing better: "The meaning of life is that it ends.") Heidegger (1889-1976) thought that to be "authentic" mean to submerge ourselves into the specific conditions of our time, which for him meant joining the Nazi party. That didn't work out too well, and after the war it became every existentialist for himself. Everyone had the chance to invent his own identity according to taste.

Few of us actually read Sartre (and most of us who do regret it), and even fewer read the impenetrable Heidegger… But most of us remain the intellectual slaves of 20th century existentialism notwithstanding.

We want to invent our own identities, which implies doing something unique.

…Most people who make heroic efforts at originality learn eventually that they are destined for no such thing. If they are lucky, they content themselves with … small joys, for example tenure at a university.

But no destiny is more depressing than that of the artist who truly manages to invent a new style and achieve recognition for it. ...The inventor of a truly new style has cut himself off from the past, and will in turn be cut off from the future by the next entrant who invents a unique and individual style. …That is why our image of the artist is a young rebel rather than an elderly sage. If our rebel artists cannot manage to die young, they do the next best thing, namely disappear from public view…

If we set out to invent our own identities, then by definition we must abominate the identities of our parents and our teachers. Our children, should we trouble to bring any into the world, also will abominate ours. 

If self-invention is the path to the meaning of life, it makes the messy job of bearing and raising children a superfluous burden, for we can raise our children by no other means than to teach them contempt for us, both by instruction, and by the example of set in showing contempt to our own parents. 

That is why humanity has found no other way to perpetuate itself than by the continuity of tradition. A life that is worthwhile is one that is worthwhile in all its phases, from youth to old age. 

Of what use are the elderly? In a viable culture they are the transmitters of the accumulated wisdom of the generations. We will take the trouble to have children of our own only when we anticipate that they will respect us in our declining years, not merely because they tolerate us, but because we will have something yet to offer to the young. 

In that case, we do not [invent] the meaning of life. We accept it, rather, as it is handed down to us. 

Tradition by itself is no guarantee of cultural viability. Half of the world's 6,700 languages today are spoken by small tribes in New Guinea, whose rate of extinction is frightful. Traditions perfected over centuries of isolated existence in Neolithic society can disappear in a few years in the clash with modernity. But there are some traditions ...that have survived for millennia and have every hope of enduring for millennia still... 

*To read the original essays in full, see:
The Existential Roots of Trump Derangement Syndrome” in PJ Media, 12 May 2017; and
Why you won't find the meaning of life” in the Asia Times, 11 August 2011.

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