October 8, 2006

Last night, our book group discussed The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts. It was a popular selection, it’s a readable book; Watts is one of the best philosophical writers of the last half century. The Wisdom of Insecurity is one of the few books that our group has discussed twice, and this was the fifth evening that we’ve spent on Watts since we started meeting eight years ago.

Our previous book was Forster’s Passage to India; it was also a popular selection. Our next book is Proust’s Swann’s Way; I doubt it will be popular, but since it’s an important work in modern literature, and since I recently visited Proust’s home, I wanted to try it. It’s a book that people think they should read. If they put some effort into it, they may end up enjoying it.

I started Swann’s Way a few days ago, and I’ve enjoyed every page. This is the third time I’ve read it; the difficulties have melted away, only the pleasures remain. Proust may not read well, but he re-reads well. Since there’s no plot, there’s no suspense to lose on a second reading. Since you’re familiar with Proust’s people and places, you can relax and enjoy the beauty of his metaphors, the sparkle of his wit. I’m no longer counting the pages, and trying to finish the book. I’m trying to absorb just the opening section, “Overture”, then read further if I feel like it. The opening section displays the genius of Proust, and outlines his fictional world, so it’s a good place to focus one’s energies. Instead of trying to finish the book, I plan to look at some commentaries and guides — something I would have been reluctant to do in my salad days, when I was green in judgment, and tried to read lots of pages in a day, and lots of books in a month. Books can be such a chore, or such a pleasure.

1. Tagore and Tolstoy on Death

I have a confession to make. Please don’t reveal this to a single soul. I had an ulterior motive for choosing The Wisdom of Insecurity: I had already read it, and so I could spare myself the labor of reading it, and I could read anything I wanted, or I could read nothing at all. But as the day of our discussion approached, I felt that I should at least glance at the book, to refresh my memory, and prepare some comments. I opened the book at random, and found this:

When the body is worn out and the brain is tired, the whole organism welcomes death.... The body dies because it wants to. It finds it beyond its power to resist the disease or to mend the injury, and so, tired out with the struggle, turns to death. If the consciousness were more sensitive to the feelings and impulses of the whole organism, it would share this desire, and, indeed, sometimes does so.1

This passage triggered a series of associations in my mind.2 I thought of the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who embraced death with a kind of ecstasy — unlike any Western writer I ever read. And I thought of Tolstoy, who said that, throughout his life, he “feared and hated death.”3 As Tagore represents an extreme of accepting death, so Tolstoy represents an extreme of fearing death. Are these just individual reactions, or are they typical of the Indian and the Russian?

In my view, a non-Western writer, like Tagore, is more in harmony with his body, with his feelings, than a Western writer; in the words of Alan Watts, the non-Western writer is “more sensitive to the feelings and impulses of the whole organism.” When the “whole organism” is ready for death, a person like Tagore senses that readiness, and ‘goes with it’ instead of struggling against it.

A Western writer, on the other hand, is apt to sharpen his consciousness by repressing his unconscious, his feelings, his body. If this is true of the West in general, it’s even more true of the northern European than the southern European. When Christianity was brought to northern Europe, northern Europeans were still living at a primitive, barbarous level. They weren’t ready for Christianity, which was the fruit of an older, more civilized society. They could only receive Christianity through a kind of violence; Christianity caused a conflict within their soul between the “animal man” and the “spiritual man”, a conflict that is perhaps just beginning to be resolved. Faust expressed this state of conflict when he said, “two souls, alas, dwell within my breast.” Christianity expressed the conflict between body and spirit when it said, ‘if you look at a woman lustfully, pluck out your eye, and cast it from thee.’4

Just as the inner conflict was more intense in northern Europe than southern Europe, so too it was more intense in Russia than in northern Europe, since Russia was more primitive than northern Europe — more precisely, Russia in 1700 was more primitive than northern Europe in 1700. Russia had its “middle ages” later than northern Europe did; Russia had its period of violent inner conflict later than northern Europe did. Just as European culture was stimulated by its inner conflict, so too Russian culture was stimulated by its inner conflict; this inner conflict, this tension, doubtless contributed to the flourishing of Russian literature in the 19th century. If the West was conflicted, Russia was more so; if the West was rational, Russia was more so. Tolstoy is a rational thinker who tried to strip the irrational elements out of Christianity; he tried to make Christianity rational. Tolstoy loathed Shakespeare because Shakespeare had a Hermetic worldview, not a rational worldview. The inner conflict in Tolstoy (and other Russians) caused him to lose touch with his feelings and his body, and to fear death.

Tagore felt that the thought of death made everything precious — every life, every blade of grass, every day. Tolstoy, on the other hand, felt that the thought of death made everything worthless; nothing in life had any value, Tolstoy thought, because it would all end in death.

2. Alain de Botton

I recently looked at one of the most popular books about Proust, Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I’ve never had much success with this writer; I’m not attracted to the style, the tone, or the content. I admit, however, that he has collected a vast number of Proust anecdotes, and some of them are interesting. Alain de Botton’s writings have the sophisticated tone that today’s journalists strive for. But good literature, in my view, has a different tone — an unsophisticated, naive tone. Alain’s style is rich like fruitcake, but a good style is as plain as a glass of water; or to use Orwell’s phrase, a good style is as clear as a window-pane. Here’s a sentence from Alain’s book on Proust:

He [Proust’s father] exuded the moral superiority available to the medical profession, a group whose value to society is unquestionably apparent to anyone who has ever suffered from a tickly cough or ruptured appendix, and which may hence provoke an uncomfortable sense of superfluity in those with less certifiably worthwhile vocations.5

This is what I call fruitcake prose — rich, wordy, loaded with adjectives and adverbs. Twain said, if you find an adverb, kill it, but Alain pays no heed to Twain’s advice. To understand Proust is a serious task, and a writer who acquires such an understanding should strive to communicate his thoughts to the reader in the simplest way possible. One who makes a serious search for truth doesn’t write with a tone of irony and sophistication.

Alain tells us that the “very longest” of Proust’s sentences would “stretch around the base of a bottle of wine seventeen times.” Alain proceeds to print that sentence in concentric circles, so that the reader would have to rotate the book in order to read the sentence. How such a game enriches our understanding of Proust, I have no idea.

In an earlier issue, I quoted a review of a book by Elie Kedourie; the reviewer said that Kedourie’s book gave him “a sense of having been held by the lapels and screamed at.” Doubtless the reviewer would have preferred a tone of irony and sophistication. Good literature often has the tone of Kedourie’s book, a tone of conviction, passion, anger.6

Proust himself didn’t use a tone of irony and sophistication when he wrote about Ruskin, and he criticized this tone when Swann used it in conversation. When he wrote about Ruskin, Proust’s tone was one of reverence, devotion, piety: “how much I admire him, listen to him, seek to understand him and to obey him more than many of the living...”7 Proust was critical of Swann for not

saying in all seriousness what he thought about things.... Whenever he spoke of serious matters, whenever he used an expression which seemed to imply a definite opinion upon some important subject, he would take care to isolate, to sterilize it by using a special intonation, mechanical and ironic.8

As Leon Wieseltier put it,

De Botton is the celebrated author of a series of books that flatten great literature into self-help literature and philosophy into tasty little homilies for the haute bourgeoisie.... His books may be the most complacent books I have ever read. In his many accounts of the struggle for existence there is no evidence of the struggle, not a shred. Instead there [is] a brush with an idea followed by an overwhelming sensation of coolness and depth. In London he has established an institution called the School of Life, which offers its paying students the opportunity to feel as lovely and as psychologically integrated as its founder.

3. The Diamond Body:
Detachment in the Works of Proust, Jung and Wolfe

One of the threads running through earlier issues of Phlit is the idea of detachment — detachment as a stage along the road of spiritual growth, perhaps the highest stage of spiritual growth. Proust helps us to understand detachment by describing its opposite — the state of attachment, the state of unhealthy obsession. Swann is obsessed with Odette, and Proust’s narrator is obsessed with his mother and later with Albertine. Proust’s narrator escapes from his twin obsessions through the death of his mother and Albertine. Since he half-consciously desired their death, he feels that he has killed them, that he’s guilty of a double-murder.9 Their deaths cause him great suffering, but this suffering teaches him detachment, wisdom:

We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.... It was essential that I should live with the idea of Albertine’s death, with the idea of her misdeeds, in order that these ideas might become habitual, that is to say that I might be able to forget these ideas and in the end to forget Albertine herself.10

Just as Proust’s narrator detaches himself from people, so too he gradually detaches himself from places — the places that he has romanticized and longed for. Both forms of detachment prepare the narrator for death:

It is, after all, as good a way as any of solving the problem of existence to approach near enough to the things that have appeared to us from a distance to be beautiful and mysterious, to be able to satisfy ourselves that they have neither mystery nor beauty.... It gives us a certain tranquility with which to spend what remains of life, and also since it enables us to regret nothing, by assuring us that we have attained to the best, and that the best was nothing out of the common — with which to resign ourselves to death.11

Perhaps detachment is a natural part of the process of aging and dying. As Jung put it, “A consciousness detached from the world.... sets in after middle life and is a natural preparation for death.”12 If this is so, then perhaps Proust’s narrator would have eventually achieved detachment even if his mother and Albertine hadn’t died. Conversely, if his mother and Albertine had died when he was young (say, twenty), their deaths wouldn’t have led to detachment and wisdom, since he wasn’t old enough to achieve detachment.

One can interpret Proust’s work as beginning with attachment, and ending with detachment, resignation, and an acceptance of death; in other words, one can interpret Proust’s work as a study of spiritual growth. This growth seems to be achieved by both Proust and his narrator. Is it also achieved by characters in Proust’s novel — Swann, Bergotte, the narrator’s grandmother, etc.?

We should note that detachment doesn’t mean turning against life, doesn’t mean pessimism, and doesn’t mean apathy. Jung speaks of

a psychic state that can best be characterized as a detachment of consciousness from the world and a withdrawal to a point outside it, so to speak. Thus consciousness is at the same time empty and not empty. It is no longer preoccupied with the images of things but merely contains them. The fullness of the world which hitherto pressed upon it has lost none of its richness and beauty, but it no longer dominates. The magical claim of things has ceased because the interweaving of consciousness with world has come to an end. The unconscious is not projected any more, and so the primordial participation mystique with things is abolished. Consciousness is no longer preoccupied with compulsive plans but dissolves in contemplative vision.13

Jung’s description of detachment is strikingly similar to descriptions of meditation. Here we have a close parallel between Jungian psychology and Eastern religion. Perhaps we can think of meditation as detachment; one who meditates is practicing detachment.

Alchemy is about spiritual growth, about achieving detachment. Alchemists used the image of a “diamond body” to represent one who is detached, one who is unaffected by “emotional entanglements and violent shocks.”14

In a recent issue of Phlit, I argued that Thomas Wolfe’s life and work can be viewed as a series of deaths, and a series of dead relationships. In some cases, Wolfe doesn’t need the friend/lover to die, he detaches himself from the relationship while the friend/lover is still alive. Severing his bonds to individuals, Wolfe forms a kind of bond with mankind as a whole. Wolfe’s experience of death fosters his spiritual growth, and prepares him for his own death. At the end of his life, Wolfe transcended pessimism, but accepted death.

4. Spiritual Growth

Just as one can argue that spiritual growth means detachment, so too one can argue that spiritual growth means inner harmony, balance, centering. Is detachment separate from harmony, or are they two sides of the same coin? Detachment is related to harmony because the unconscious forms compulsive attachments when it isn’t integrated into the personality. If one achieves harmony, then the unconscious doesn’t “wander off” and get involved in emotional entanglements.

Proust depicts the pain of compulsive attachment, and the tranquility of detachment. Wolfe also depicts the gradual achievement of detachment. But Shakespeare depicts not only detachment but also harmony, and thus he may give us a more complete picture of spiritual growth than Proust or Wolfe gives us. For example, Shakespeare portrays Horatio as both integrated and detached. Horatio is one whose “blood and judgment” are commingled;15 Horatio has achieved a harmony of head and heart, thought and feeling. Horatio has also achieved detachment; Hamlet says to him,

    thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks....
    Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core.

This reminds us of Jung’s description of detachment; according to Jung, the detached personality “suffers only in the lower stories, as it were, but in its upper stories is singularly detached from painful as well as from joyful happenings.”16

Though Proust focuses on emotional entanglements that are loving in nature (such as Swann’s obsessive love for Odette), an entanglement based on enmity/hate is also possible. Is love the opposite of hate, or are they akin? Proust’s narrator half-consciously desires the death of those he loves; thus, his conduct is similar to that of one who hates. And if love often contains a seed of hatred, so too hatred often contains a seed of love. Freud said, “Love is with unexpected regularity accompanied by hate [and] in a number of circumstances hate changes into love and love into hate.”17 Perhaps love and hate aren’t opposites, as we’re apt to think; perhaps they’re two forms of the same thing — namely, attachment, emotional entanglement.

5. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 38

This sonnet has no bearing on the topics that I’ve discussed in the past — namely, the identity of Shakespeare, and the identity of Shakespeare’s son. It deals with the traditional theme of the beloved as muse, the beloved as inspiration for the poet:

How can my muse want subject to invent
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thyself the thanks if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight,
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
   If my slight muse do please these curious days,
   The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

© L. James Hammond 2006
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1. Ch. 4, pp. 66, 67 back
2. One can compare philosophy to a plaza from which numerous roads radiate out, or one can compare it to a central city, to which all roads lead. Schopenhauer said, “my philosophy is like Thebes with a hundred gates. One can enter from any direction, and through each gate arrive at the direct path to the very center.”(On the Basis of Morality, preface to the first edition) back
3. Reminiscences of Tolstoy, by Maxim Gorky (Dover, 1946), ch. 2 back
4. see Matthew, 5:28-30. This passage shows that, even in the land where Christianity originated, Christianity brought with it inner conflict.
    Jung has this to say about the spiritual development of Europe:
Our western evolution from a primitive level was suddenly interrupted by the invasion of a psychology and spirituality belonging to a much higher level of civilization.... We were stopped in the midst of a still barbarous polytheism.... This could only be brought about by a dissociation between the conscious part of the mind and the unconscious.... Religious practice and morality took on a decidedly brutal, almost malignant, character.”(Psychology and the East, “What India Can Teach Us”, ¶1008; the last sentence is from the same volume, ¶70) For more on this topic, click here. back
5. Ch. 2, “How to Read for Yourself” back
6. Charlton Ogburn’s Mysterious William Shakespeare has this tone of conviction, passion, anger. When it was reviewed in the New York Times, it was criticized in much the same terms as Kedourie’s book was criticized. back
7. Quote from Proust’s letter to Marie Nordlinger. See The Cambridge Companion to Proust, “Ruskin and the cathedral of lost souls,” ch. 3, p. 43 back
8. Swann’s Way, “Combray,” pp. 122, 123. Kierkegaard wrote his Master’s thesis on irony (hence he called himself a “master of irony”). Kierkegaard felt that Socrates’ irony revealed depth of spirit, whereas certain ironic writers of modern times didn’t have that depth of spirit, hence Kierkegaard questioned their use of irony. back
9. See our earlier comments on this subject. back
10. Sweet Cheat Gone, ch. 1 back
11. Within A Budding Grove, “Seascape, With Frieze of Girls” back
12. Psychology and the East, “Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower”, ¶68 back
13. ibid, ¶65 back
14. ibid, ¶68 back
15. Hamlet, III, ii. For more on this subject, click here. Shakespeare seems to have understood the link between detachment and harmony, since he ascribes them to the same character (Horatio), and mentions them in the same speech. back
16. op. cit., ¶67 back
17. The Ego and the Id, ch. 4. While Proust focuses on obsessive love, Shakespeare seems more concerned with obsessive hate. back