"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

In the Now: Freud, Impermanence, and Me

Image of war-torn Europe, WWI (courtesy of BBC One)
For L

Say what you will about Sigmund Freud – male chauvinist obsessed with sexual repression (but come on, it was the Victorian age); cocaine addict (but it appears he kicked the habit himself as a young doctor); concocter of outlandish clinical observations (but his notions of self-insight and characterological development still benefit many today).

And he was also a masterful explorer of the seemingly prosaic. Take for example the idea of loss. In his short essay “On Transience” (which seems to have been the seed for a major technical paper, Mourning and Melancholia), Freud recounts a walk he took through the countryside with a young, already-accomplished poet. Inclined toward moroseness, the poet saw all the beauty around him ultimately as a source not of joy but disturbance and despondency. “All that he would otherwise have loved and admired,” Freud explained, “seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.”

Freud could not deny the reality of impermanence, writing “what is painful may none the less be true.” More importantly though, he took issue with the poet’s pessimistic reaction: 
Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment. It was incomprehensible, I declared, that the thought of the transiency of beauty should interfere with our joy in it….The beauty of the human form and face vanish forever in the course of our own lives, but their evanescence only lends them a fresh charm. A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely.
I am not so quixotic as to ignore the possible problems here as I address loss in terms of, say, Freud’s flower when around us loss is occurring in gut-wrenchingly profound, even horrific ways.

And yet, dear reader, you yourself may be in some way, perhaps scarcely realizing it, mourning the loss of, if not a person wholly, then perhaps a portion of that person, or mourning the absence of something that you once shared together. If I had to hazard a guess, then I’d say you’re right – what once was is no longer and will never be. And yet for everything that is diminished is there not then something augmented? And do you not have some say in all of this?

"Never, never may the fruit be plucked from the bough
And gathered into barrels.
He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs."

The first lines of an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet. Yes, we form memories and perhaps store up something, but maybe the poem’s speaker has a point – maybe when it comes to love, it’s simply not a thing that can be preserved for another day. But then again, something in that notion does not sit well with me; it seems a bit too romantic.

Perhaps it’s a daily process of renewal.

If somehow every morning we were delivered a poignant and powerful reminder of just how ephemeral everything is, how would we then encounter the people we hold dearest? Handle them daintily but appreciatively, like a fragile ancient vase? Or be as present as we can to give something precious its due – to know another, to be with another, to hold another. Are these not strangely wonderful opportunities?

Full disclosure on my inspiration here: At the time of this writing, even as tawny, dry leaves whisper across the pavement, I am in a personal springtime. I will go so far as to simply say my body has been resurrected; someone has moved me to the point of absolute attention – attention not as a forced rigidity but rather a tender intensity, where the hard and the soft lose distinction to form something new, if only momentarily.  I’m thinking now of these lines from Andrew Marvell:

"Let us roll all our strength and all 
Our sweetness up into one ball"

But what then of that ball? If I am enjoying – and my God, I am – another whose departure is imminent, is the union somehow diminished? Should the joy be commensurate with a perceived confidence in possibilities to come? And why place my focus on ethereal notions of better days, days with more certainty, with more clarity when, really, I have an undeserved gift – now?

Near the end of “On Transience,” Freud movingly reflects on the abject destruction the war in Europe (WWI) had brought about:
My conversation with the poet took place in the summer before the war. A year later the war broke out and robbed the world of its beauties. It destroyed not only the beauty of the countryside through which it passed and the works of art which it met on its path but it also shattered our pride in the achievements of our civilization, our admiration for many philosophers and artists and our hopes of a final triumph over the differences between nation and races. It tarnished the lofty impartiality of our science, it revealed our instincts in all their nakedness and let loose spirits within us which we thought had been tamed forever by the noblest minds.
I have time now to be a fool, so, please, indulge me. I cannot predict the cataclysms that may befall me or you, or our loved ones, or our country, or our world. But I can kiss her. In two days I will hold her face in my hands and kiss her.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.