Traumatic Selfhood: Becoming Who We Are (3)

This is the last of a series of three posts under the same title.

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I want to begin by indicating where I am going.  So, to sum up now what is to follow, here’s what I’ll end up saying:

We become who we are not by coming to be, but by being to come.*

In other words, our being is a being underway.  To become ourselves is not to get to the end of our journey, but to stay always on our way.  Becoming ourselves at last is not finally getting all the becoming done.  Instead, it is giving up, finally, of all expectation of ever being done with becoming, which is to say with always keeping going along our way, always being underway.

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At one point in MetaMaus (New York:  Pantheon Books, 2011) graphic author Art Spiegelman addresses his interaction with his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, during the time the former was researching and creating Maus, his now classic graphic novel about the Holocaust and its aftermath.  In the context of that discussion, Spiegelman remarks (on page 36) on how, during the course of that interaction with his father, “Vladek displayed himself to be a much more complex character than I’d, literally, have imagined.”  He then writes:  “In a sense it’s like when people talk about a friend and say, ‘He’s not himself today.’  Well, we’re reduced down for convenience sake to a series of tropes and twitches, but we are none of us ourselves.  And that’s what makes us a self . . .”

He’s right:  What makes us a self is precisely that we are never ourselves.  To be a self is always to be out of sorts.

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In Being and Time Heidegger says that the conversion from inauthenticity to authenticity—that is, from not being our own, to being our own (or, to put it just a bit differently, from owning up to who we are, and not owning up to it)—is not a matter of leaving the inauthentic behind, like some discarded garment.  To use some terms and examples of my own, the conversion from inauthenticity to authenticity is not like the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly.  Nor is it like a snake shedding its old skin.  Rather, such conversion is a matter, in effect, of the re-contextualizing of the whole—whatever whole it is that is undergoing the conversion.

According to Heidegger the authentic self always arises out of the inauthentic, and always returns it; the former never leaves the latter behind.  Another way of putting that is to say that one’s self is always one and the same self, both when it’s inauthentic and when it’s authentic.  It’s just that “authenticity” is authentically being the inauthentic self one always is anyway.

That’s always how it is for us—that is, for all of us, whoever we are:  each and every one of us.  And—just “by the way,” as it were—how it is for us is that most of the time we are mostly not ourselves at all, but just one of all those others.  Most of the time, we are mostly nobody in particular, but just anybody, just “someone or other,” a bunch of indifferent referents for the impersonal pronoun one. Heidegger’s good at pointing that out, too.

He points it out at length in Being and Time, first published in 1927.  He does the same thing in a much shorter—and, therefore, potentially much clearer—manner in The Concept of Time, written in 1924, containing an earlier version of much of the same material.  The German edition of that 1924 text was first published in 2004 as the 64th volume of the complete edition of Heidegger’s works, and the paraphrases and translations that follow are my own.

In the passage I have in mind from The Concept of Time (on pages 26 and 27 in the German version), Heidegger begins by observing that, in our everyday lives together with one another, we identify both ourselves and others with what we do—by which we ordinarily mean do “for a living,” as Americans, especially, put it.  That is, to speak in the vernacular of our global market culture of today, we define ourselves and one another by what we do for money, what we get paid to do:  our “jobs” or “occupations.”

What fits such monetary fixation especially well is what Heidegger says next, which is that, so identified, none of us is ever really her or his own.  Rather, we are all, as it were, owned by our jobs, or at least by whatever powers it may be who pay us for doing those jobs.  We might catch Heidegger’s drift by saying that through such common identification with what we do, we are all effectively dis-owned, which is to say stripped of belonging to ourselves:  Own-er-ship over ourselves is assigned elsewhere—namely, for the most part, to whom- or what-ever, even and above all if that turns out to be nobody and nothing in particular, holds the strings to the purse from which we draw our day’s pay.

As Heidegger observes, in such a situation, which is our everyday situation today, we are all equally dis-owned from ourselves.  In that situation, who each one of us is—in the jargon that has become universalized through modern philosophy: the “subject” of such everyday life—is captured by the indefinite personal pronoun “one.”  He writes (page 27):

The subject of everyday being with one another is “one.”  The differences maintained between one of us and another occur within a certain ordinariness of what is customary, what is fitting, what one let’s count and what one doesn’t.  This worn-down ordinariness, which in effect noiselessly suppresses every exception and all originality, pervades and dominates “one.”  In this “one” [we] grow up, and more and more into it, and are never entirely able to leave it.

In short, insofar as all of us are “one,” then we are none of us ourselves.

And that, as Spiegelman says, is what makes each of us a self in the first place.

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The real problems start when we forget that what makes us ourselves is that we’re never ourselves but are always, as I put it earlier, “out of sorts” with ourselves—or, as I put it even earlier yet, that we are always “out of step” with ourselves.  In the struggle to get right with ourselves, to come into lockstep with who we are, so that we can be all of one sort, we enter that forgetfulness.  Surrounded by the fog of forgetting, we cling.

That closes off hope.

Recently, in a group setting, a friend of mine passed on something she’d herself heard—that the word hope should be heard as an acronym for “Hang on!  Pain ends!”  When I first heard that from her, what popped into my mind was the thought that hope could just as well be taken to be an acronym for “Hang on!  Pleasure ends!”  After all, both (pain and pleasure) do (end).

Hope itself need not.  However, it will, if one clings—which is to say “hangs on.”

Accordingly, the second thought that came to me after I heard the line about hope being a matter of “hanging on,” was that in my own experience it was the very opposite that opened into hope.  That is, for hope to spring up in one’s heart, all one really needs to do in the face of either pain or pleasure is to remember that both do indeed end, and let that memory bring one relaxation.

It’s worth noting here that one can practice such hoping.  Or, to articulate that a bit more fully, one can practice holding oneself in openness to the gift of hope.  Yet holding oneself in openness to receive what is given—and please notice the difference between “holding on,” as one might to some idolatrously cherished opinion, and “holding oneself in,” in the sense that one might hold oneself in openness to new ideas, rather than clinging as tightly as one can to old, familiar ones—is itself already to hope.  Therefore, to practice staying open to the gift of hope is already, as such, to have received that very gift.  So what I said at first is still perhaps best:  the practice at issue is the practice of hope itself.

That’s “victory”—the very victory that Kierkegaard says is the expectancy of faith!

In my own case, it was my faith in another friend at another time, a time quite some time ago now, that allowed that other friend to teach me how to be victorious—or, rather, to help me realize that I already was, by my very faith itself.  That other friend was a former student who had become a family friend, but whom we hadn’t seen for about ten years.  He came back into our lives at just the right point for me to be receptive to what he had to give me—in the process repaying me handsomely, by Nietzsche’s lights,** for having once been his teacher.

What my friend taught me was the essence of the practice of meditation, at the very most basic level of responding to one’s own body’s response to the physical pain that accompanies holding oneself in an assigned physical posture when one meditates.  The particular form of mediation he practiced himself and passed on to me was a Buddhist one of sitting meditation, and my back-then-not-even-old body sent me signals of pain, primarily but not exclusively from my knees, when I tried holding myself steady in even the least stressful basic positions on a cushion.  My natural bodily response to those signals was, of course, to tense toward the pain, trying to isolate it and draw away from it.  What my former student taught me, his erstwhile teacher, in turn was to try to counter—as in “en-counter,” and not as in “go against,” which is to say resist—that tendency.  I was, instead of holding on against the pain, to hold myself open to it.  He promised (and I trusted his promise, since he spoke with no more authority than that of love, by the way, a way to which I’ll return below, I promise) that if I practiced doing that, I would discover something that is easy to say but not so easy to do.  I would discover that the very endeavor to avoid pain, to tense in the presence of it and struggle to withdraw from it—that is, to hold on against it—only worsened the pain, and prolonged it.  Whereas, of course (and as therapy for chronic pain sufferers teaches them), by relaxing toward pain—letting oneself go into it—one cleared the way for the pain to pass in its own time, and to end, as all pain (as well as all pleasure) will end, if we but let it.

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The love that my younger friend, my former student, gave me that day was nothing smarmy or sentimental.  That is, it had nothing of the clinging, voluntary or involuntary, to self and selfishness that itself so often clings to our love, distorting and perverting it, robbing it of the fulfillment of its own most defining intention and making it altogether miss its own mark, dis-owning it of itself.  It was wholly “disinterested” love, in the best, truest sense of that:  a love that took no interest in itself at all, but gave all its interest to who or what it directed itself to—in this case, myself.  My former student now turned teacher in turn made no effort, on the occasion in question, to “fix” me in any way.  He made no effort to take any of my cares away.  Rather, to use Heidegger’s way of putting the matter, he went ahead of me and cleared the way a bit so that I might the better take up those cares for myself, since after all they were indeed my own.  By clearing the way a ways that way, he let me stay underway on my own way.

That’s what love’s got to do with it, with the business of becoming who we are (which is not at all the business of GM or any other business, by the way).  As St. Paul says somewhere, without that, everything else counts for nothing, and less than nothing.  That includes the other two of the true “Big Three” (to use a now no-longer very business-wise useful phrase from the business world) Paul names for us:  faith, hope, and love—those three.

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I want to end this series of three posts on the trauma of selfhood, of becoming who we are, by going back to where I started, in the sense of where the thought of this series first arose for me, which was in reading the works of the twentieth century French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche.  Or at least I want to begin to end this series there, since where I’ll actually end it will be somewhere else.

In “A Short Treatise on the Unconscious,” the second essay in the collection of his Essays on Otherness, Laplanche characterizes the classic psychoanalytic situation in which the analysand (the one being analyzed) lies on a couch behind which the analyst sits, out of sight and for the most part silent while the analysand does the speaking, as one of enclosure.  That is, it is a situation designed precisely to enclose the analysand, just as the dark of night encloses us as we walk along alone in it.  Laplanche is concerned to point out that it is precisely because of this being enclosed by and within it that, for the analysand, the analytic situation “constitutes an unprecedented site of opening, one which is, properly speaking, quite unheard of [elsewhere in ordinary] human experience.”

What the analytic enclosure opens the analysand to is nothing other than herself or himself—only herself or himself as always and ever outside herself or himself.  The analytic space, or its like (if it has any likes, as I will suggest it does, and yet still doesn’t, below), provides each of us who may enter into that space an enclosure, which is to say in effect a “safe” place, in which we are granted space to be those very selves we are, but which we can be only insofar as we are all always “beside ourselves” (to use a wise phrase from our everyday, ordinary way of speaking, which we ordinarily do not use so wisely).  In psychoanalysis, of course, that self that is always beside oneself, yet always at least a stutter-step off one’s own pace, is called the id, which is Latin for “it.”  That’s the psychoanalytic way of saying what one ordinarily says by “one,” in the sense Heidegger points to when he observes that the “subject” of everyday life is just “one,” which means everybody alike and nobody in particular.

Hence, right after remarking on how the analytic enclosure provides “an unprecedented site of opening,” Laplanche goes on by writing:  “Let us remember that if the id has its origin in the first communications, [nevertheless, and for that very reason, in fact,] what is proper to it [as “it”:  Latin id] is that it does not talk.  What brings the id to language, and more broadly to expression, can only be the result of the complex process which is the analytic treatment.”

The (very Heideggerian) note I made to myself when I first read those lines from Laplanche is also worth citing at this point:  “The id is the un-said of the said.  As such, it is what sounds by breaking into the silence broken by the speaking of language.”  What I mean is such speaking as the analysand does in voicing free associations, or recounting dreams, or, in general, just droning on and on in the enclosure provided by the (often deeply irritating) silence of the analyst, who just refuses to jump in and do the analysand’s work for her, and by that very refusal creates the remarkable—indeed, “properly speaking, quite unheard of”—“site” where the unheard of can be heard, precisely still in and as the never said, and therefore never heard from.  Such speaking is the breaking of the silence that lets the silence itself be heard.

I have never myself been in psychoanalysis.  Nor have I at present any plans to go into that particular place of enclosure, as fine—and frightening—as Laplanche makes that site sound.  Nevertheless, I have a strong sense of having been in similar en-closing-ly safe-scary places, where I have found analogues of the analyst Laplanche also discusses.  One such place I have been is the enclosure of meditation, and my analyst-analogue, the one who guided me to and in that place of enclosure, was my friend and former student.  Another such place I have personal familiarity with is a meeting, any meeting, of Alcoholics Anonymous or any other Twelve Step group inspired by AA.

By bringing up such analogues to the psychoanalytic site, I am in no way meaning to suggest that Laplanche is wrong is say that that site itself is truly “unprecedented.”  What I mean to say is that all such sites are equally without precedent, equally, “properly speaking, unheard of”—each and every one of them.

All such places are utterly irreplaceable.  That is, there is no substituting of one for another, any more than one can substitute one love for another, at least if love owns up to itself.

Indeed, all such places, each and every one, are places of love, which is to say unprecedented, unheard of places where we are at last allowed to become who we are, without every being it.  And it is only in such places, the places of love, that we are ever allowed to be ourselves, even and especially when we are utterly beside ourselves, out of sorts, not ourselves at all—but always betting everything on the come.

After all, that’s always what love awaits, isn’t it?


* Whether that remark is salacious or not, depends on the ears with which it is heard:  If the hearing is attuned to coming to be, it will be; otherwise, not.

** Nietzsche says somewhere that that one repays a teacher badly, who remains always only a pupil.

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