Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1

I have been loosely interested in the works of Montaigne for a while (i.e. I knew of his name), but I was not yet ready to read them for myself; I just hadn’t worked up the interest and have a lot of other stuff on my reading list.

Continue reading “Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1”

On Being Everything

Recently, I have been reading Montaigne.

The full ramifications of this have yet to be seen; he is an interesting figure, and his writings are even more so, full of anecdotes and ramblings. His works are deep and profound, but they’re also shallow and lighthearted. Simultaneously with contradicting himself, Montaigne seems to be right about everything, which is infuriating.

I have also been working on the aspirational identification of myself with the heroic individual; I feel that this is a necessary step for me to improve my own life and the world.

Undergoing this process is something that is painful, often difficult, and also requires equally painful and difficult soul-searching.

One thing that I will do is consider maxims and then decide whether they are true or not. I try to come up with these as creatively as possible, or use what I read as an inspiration.

Today, one of these maxims popped into my head, and it was rather troubling for me:

I am everything in the universe.

Now, I don’t know how much I trust the random thoughts that pop into my head. In fact, I actually trust them very little. My brain is very good at free association and wandering aimlessly and without purpose. Most of the maxims I try to apply to myself are true only in part, which is perhaps the fundamental element of the human condition.

In any case, to the extent that the above statement is true, I don’t believe that it is necessarily a positive. At least, I do not interpret it in a sort of heliocentric egoism.

Rather, I think there is something to be said for the human spirit as a tabula rasa. Not necessarily in Rousseau’s noble savage conception of it, but rather in the sense that a person undeveloped can turn into anything.

I grew up in a traditional Christian upbringing, though I was not really acquainted as closely with theological traditions until I became older.

Two important traditions within Christianity, or at least the sect of Christianity that I find myself within, are those of original sin and total depravity.

Pairing this with the seemingly blasphemous maxim that popped into my head, it becomes immediately apparent that there are limitations to this, but it holds some truth.

This gives birth to a truer maxim, one which is more measured:

I am capable of becoming everything within my limitations.

The problem with this is that it is not necessarily a positive statement.

I’ve read a fair deal of Jung, though not as much as I would like. One of Jung’s most influential concepts in my life is that of the Shadow, the darker inner side of the subconscious that is hidden from our waking life.

In my life, I have the luxury of being relatively moral. I have made, generally, decisions which I can look back upon with at least a veneer of respectability, though I would say that I have made decisions that have generally benefited the world. I might be barely breaking even, all things considered, but I am at least not dragging everything down.

But I could be.

When I was a young adult, I had my first experience with holding a gun. My mother had paid for my brother and I to go to a firing range (I do not remember the circumstances that led up to this), and we had a rental lined up.

I remember relatively few of the details; I was able to piece many of them together later from the benefit of reflection, but they are not as important as the general experience.

When holding that gun, I had the realization that the power of life and death was in my hands. Perhaps, it would be appropriate to point out, it was only the power of death in my hands.

Barring my initial anxiety–my knowledge of guns came only from the movies, and while we had gone through the basic safety guidelines my brother and I were left to our own devices on the range–the event passed without incident. I was not a good shot, and remain mediocre at best to this day despite a few more trips to the range, but the sensation was familiar.

A similar sensation washes over me when I drive a car, a knowledge that I have within my capacity a great deal of harm.

For a while, I lived in terror of this feeling. I could not put it in words, but my own danger, that is, the danger I posed to the world around me, scared me.

The result was internal conflict. In the Jungian sense, I had awoken a dragon within my Shadow, but I had not figured out how to confront it.

Later, when I was reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (affiliate link), I would discover that this is a common ailment.

I had not considered the fact that everything resides inside me.

This is not to be interpreted as a manifestation of hubris, because the everything within is not manifest in a complex form. Rather, it is as if the elemental motives that make up reality, matter in the sense that the things that matter are matter, all exist within me. They are latent, but awaken in tune with my spirit.

To overcome the dissonance within my psyche, I had to reach the realization that I was not just a good person. The notion of a good person is so vague by definition that it is easy for us to categorize ourselves as such. I often witness children ask if they have been good or bad, as if seeking exculpation. The truth of the matter is that nobody can make that assessment on a reasoned basis. The complexities of reality are such that judgment to the point of condemnation (though not judgment to the point of discernment) is impossible.

The truth is more complex. As I mentioned earlier, I have begun to better envision what a “good person” is; I have begun a process of alignment with the heroic individual who embodies those virtues that I wish to embody.

The counterpart to that is recognizing that there is a fraud, a war criminal, a traitor in every heart. Each step taken toward virtue means a step taken away from blind convention. Peterson would describe this as going from order to chaos, and this is a good conceptualization of the process.

There’s a Nietzsche-like element to the process. Stepping away from habit and toward a place where one can develop virtue also leaves one prone to stepping into darkness. The pursuit of light does not come without a risk of hypocrisy, of bringing the wrong elements of the self into dominance.

This is the Jungian Shadow: you are sheltered from your weaknesses by sticking to the rut, but to move beyond you must confront the worst elements of yourself and risk disaster.

The dragon I had to fight–the adversary I am still facing–is that the potential for great disaster lies within my own self, within my best intentions and the potential for me to give into baser desires.

I am everything in the universe, in its basest form, and that’s not as good as it might seem. I strive to inflect myself in such a way that I develop into the ideal; to pick up my cross and follow the righteous path.

Music of the Day: Elgar’s Enigma Variations

Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations are perhaps one of the best examples of classical music that can evoke strong emotions. Based on a common element, each individual variation inflects upon the theme in a variety of interesting ways, and throughout the overarching work each piece has its own specific role.

At times dark, and at times hopeful, the Enigma Variations are an attempt to capture various moments and individuals and Elgar’s life. Perhaps the greatest strength of the variations is their flexibility: many of the pieces are very short, but can make their identity clear in a minute or less. Others, like the famous Nimrod variation, build upon a single notion and develop it into a larger distinct piece. The sheer versatility is staggering.

Elgar’s variations reflect the entire range of human emotion. They are almost as much a biography of the spirit as they are of his subjects.

I had the pleasure once of attending a performance of the Enigma Variations in concert. The experience of doing nothing but simply listening to music is stunning. I have heard it said that Elgar’s Enigma Variations is for modern British identity what Arne’s Rule Britannia was for Imperial Britain. Not being British myself I cannot vouch for this, but it is worth noting that the Enigma Variations served as a central source for Hans Zimmer’s score of the movie Dunkirk. Indeed, it was Elgar’s work more so than Zimmer’s that carried the film’s soundtrack, and it was well received by modern audiences around the world for its emotional poignancy.

I am rarely captured by music so strongly as to be enraptured by it. The Works of Arvo Pärt are a good example of this, and Elgar manages to achieve the same appeal for me. However, there is something more authentic in Elgar’s work. Much of Pärt’s work is sacred music, and his minimalist style serves itself misses certain elements of the emotional life: they are majestic and transcendental, but much of Part’s work overlooks everyday, common, events.

Elgar leaves no such gap in his work. The Variations can be playful or down to earth as well as being majestic, and as a result a person’s mood can be fitted to one of the Variations at any point. Overall, I would say that the whole collection is playful, but is punctuated by triumphant and somber moments. Listening to the Variations in their entirety as a larger whole is cathartic in the same sense that a play or film written and performed by masters might be. I can think of no other musical work that progresses so elegantly through the entire range of human emotion.

As a layman, I am far from the best person to describe Elgar’s work, but it needs no in-depth description. From the soaring triumphant strains rising from the sorrowful depths of the Nimrod variation, to more playful and cheerful elements (Elgar made one of the variations after being inspired by a dog at play), even without knowledge of the scenes and pictures that they are supposed to represent the Variations provide the essence of their subjects. They are worth listening to individually, even if one does not listen to the whole work: there is something sublime in the collection, but also something beautiful in each individual part of the whole.

Much as an actor or writer may put themselves into the heads of their characters, Elgar seems to jump into each song with audacity. Each movement is honest, and that allows it to be perhaps unparalleled and its ability to form direct connections with the listener.

Explaining why the Enigma Variations are so wonderful is beyond my ability. However, an apt starting point would be to compare them to the works of Montaigne: listening to the Variations is like listening to a friend tell a story in the same way that one reading Montaigne’s essays finds that are they listening to a friend mull over thoughts.

Music of the Day: Pärt’s Lamentate

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Arvo Pärt’s work. He blends classical and modern styles in such a way that they are transformed into something distinctly unique. His merits are strong enough to be recognized even by a musical layperson such as myself.

The biggest weakness of modern composers, in my opinion, is the complete dissociation that they draw from tradition. While they can have practical reasons to do what they do, it is often more of an exercise in flamboyant display of talent. When someone does not have that talent, it falls flat. The composers of old are equally vulnerable to such hubris, but have the advantage of centuries between us and them: their worst works are forgotten or rarely performed, and their best are treasured.

Pärt, however, seems to be a composer without hubris. This is not to say that he is universally successful in creating music worth listening to, but I would be hard pressed to condemn any part of his work as trite or meaningless.

Recently I have been listening, by happy accident, to his Lamentate. I had snuck parts of it into a classical playlist that I sometimes listen to, but I had not really listened to the whole work in one consecutive go, as it is meant to be.

His trademark tintinnabuli style is on display in the Lamentate, but unlike many of the minimalist composers he draws heavily from classic methods and his works remain recognizable as successors to that tradition. I compare him in this sense to Glass, whose work I have mixed affection toward. Glass’s “Metamorphosis” is a terrific composition, for instance, but he has also created works that are not what I would describe as classical: they stray too far in form and substance to be considered part of an earlier tradition (Koyaanisqatsi, which I like in part, is an example of this straying too far to be within the same category).

The Lamentate lives up to its name; Pärt describes it as “… a lamento – not for the dead, but for the living.”

Its mood is dark: at places oppressive, in others fragile. It moves at its own pace. It inspires–not to joy, but to mourning and reflection. Despite this, it is not lost within itself; the feeling that results is catharsis, not dread or depression. It moves with purpose, then with dissonance, the staggering of one overwhelmed with the world, but who will not be lost.

Reflections on The Examined Life

The Examined Life (affiliate link), by Peter Grosz, is a book based on his practice as a psychoanalyst. I was led to it by an article that I had read on The Guardian about the use of cognitive behavioral therapy as opposed to psychoanalysis to treat mental illness. The article itself is more in-detail in its findings than I care to be here: you can read it for yourself if you so desire.

When I was in college, I had to read one of Freud’s case studies for a course. It was a survey of the humanities, and while I greatly enjoyed the class in general I remember being somewhat put off of the whole notion of psychoanalysis by Freud.

It is only through the work of Joseph Campbell that I wound up making a connection to Jung, and from Jung I discovered that psychoanalysis of the sort practiced by Freud was not the extent of the field.

Grosz provides case studies of psychoanalysis that are both analytical (as they should be), but also personal. While there is a limit on how much can be said for the sake of the patients’ privacy, there is also a lot of depth, which makes reading the case studies an interesting and intimate process.

There is something about the way that Grosz recounts things that makes the whole affair into something like a biography of the ordinary man. While it is true that many of the clients that Grosz works with would not technically be considered wholly ordinary, the humility that he expresses and the earnest, down-to-earth practice (including admissions of his own errors or misjudgments) goes a far way toward making the read worthwhile.

All-in-all, I finished The Examined Life in two days. The book is structured into sections and chapters based on topics, though the majority of chapters focus on just one or two cases.

There’s something transcendental in reading such things. Our human minds are capable of weaving mysteries hidden from ourselves, but seeing that same process go on in others shows us something of our essence, to borrow a notion from ancient philosophy.

The structure of the book, as it is, is probably one of its best achievements. I’ve also been reading the essays of Montaigne and listening to a sort of biography-cum-analysis centered on his life and works, and I am immediately struck by the similarity in the broad-topic specific-analysis correlation between the two works, written centuries and languages apart.

I think that it’s possible to see something of ourselves when we read a work like this, both in Grosz and his clients. While some of the examples are extreme (for instance, a child who engages in increasingly oppositional defiant behavior), there are also more common examples.

Upon reflection, I can easily draw connections between Grosz’s patients and the work of Ibsen, or of Miller. There is something that is literary and timeless in the individual mortal experience; an archetypal connection between the being of an individual and the Being of reality as a whole.

There is another side here, a side that Tolstoy illustrates in his magnificent Death of Ivan Ilych, the notion that we are incapable of believing that which we do not wish to believe, as Grosz’s patient who has every possible piece of evidence that her husband is having an affair, but only draws the connection after discovering a neatly loaded dishwasher in his apartment away from home.

However, the art of the psychoanalyst goes deeper; the mind is deep and multilayered, and there are things within it that remain unconscious to the individual, shown in dreams and complexes but not in conscious thought. These things cannot be believed not because they are necessarily abhorrent or because a person is in conscious denial, but rather because they are entirely unknown to us: Jung’s conception of this took the form of the Shadow.

The Shadow is the part of the mind that we are unaware of, the subconscious. Confronting the Shadow is important, because it bears strengths and weaknesses that otherwise are occluded from our awareness. Having these known to us provides us with a great tool to improve ourselves, both by extending our potential and by allowing us to shield ourselves from our greatest weaknesses.

Grosz’ work involves voyaging into that realm, that unknown part of the mind, and retrieving from it treasures. To do so, he must often help his patients vanquish the dragons that guard their inner keeps.

I think that this is why The Examined Life is such a compelling read. It is not merely the fact that it presents a deep picture of each of us as individuals, something which we want dearly to believe for the sake of avoiding the oblivion of meaninglessness. This is an expansion upon the explanation given for its popularity in The Guardian’s article, which I mentioned earlier. However, I think that this is just part of the appeal: it is a compelling read not only for its picture of the human individual as a being capable of worth, but also because it is a reflection of the heroic process.

After all, the individual is meaningless if their actions are also meaningless, but when an action becomes meaningful it provides the actor with meaning. Carry that further, to the greatest possible good, and you have a sort of deity in the form of Meaning: values strong enough to justify the pain and suffering of existence.

Review and Reflection: Maps of Meaning

Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning is a challenging read. Peterson is perhaps best known for his 12 Rules for Life (affiliate link), a mixture of self-help, pop psychology (but from a real expert), and classic wisdom.

Maps of Meaning (affiliate link) eschews some of the self-help elements of 12 Rules for Life, but is deeply embedded in psychology, myth, and storytelling.

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Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (6-7)

I finished reading the Harry Potter series on Kindle, finishing The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows in pretty rapid succession. It’s been almost a week since I finished reading the latter, so I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts.

I know that I’ve already talked about how I considered the Harry Potter series quite good (for more see my previous posts on the first three books and fourth and fifth books) when I went to read it. I was part of the target audience back when it first came out, but just never got around to reading it for a variety of reasons.

Continue reading “Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (6-7)”