Self and circumstance

My jumping off point today is a passage from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers. Mrs Morel, early in the novel (ch. 3), is tending to her sick husband (Morel), a man she once, but not longer, loved. Because of the completion of the “ebbing” of her love, she is tolerant of him—more tolerant than if she had still loved him. Why should this be? Lawrence’s narrator offers the following explanation:

Now, with the birth of this third baby, her self no longer set towards him, helplessly, but was like a tide that scarcely rose, standing off from him. After this she scarcely desired him. And, standing more aloof from him, not feeling him so much part of herself, but merely part of her circumstances, she did not mind so much what he did, could leave him alone.

Love is here characterized as the assimilation of another to oneself. There is a fundamental division between self and circumstance: in love, the lover moves the loved from the side of circumstance to the side of self. This provides, perhaps, a way of understanding the Christian conception of husband and wife as “one flesh”—a conception that likely serves as the backdrop for the passage.

What is more interesting to me, however, is the quasi-Stoic psychology the passage invokes. Again, the passage offers an explanation of Mrs Morel’s tolerance for her husband in terms of her loss of love for him. There is a more distant relationship between a self and its circumstance than between a self and itself. Circumstances matter to us only insofar as they impinge upon our selves in some way, whereas we feel directly what happens to our selves. There is thus made possible our taking an indifferent, tolerant attitude toward our circumstances: it becomes easier to take them as they are. Applied to the case of Mrs Morel: with the loss of her love, her husband becomes part of the circumstance, hence more distant, hence more tolerable.

I called this psychology quasi-Stoic: Stoic because it mirrors the Stoics’ sharp distinction between the ruling center (the seat of reason, one’s self) and everything else, but only quasi-Stoic because, unlike the Stoics, Lawrence’s narrator accepts that the boundary is malleable, that it may change over the course of our lives.

Natura non facit saltus, as Linnaeus would say, but my artifice allows me to start anew, from a distant point, and weave my way back to the themes of the forgoing discussion. Since taking a seminar on the human/animal boundary last year, I have found my mind constantly returning to the theme, though never settling on a particular way of drawing (or refusing to draw) the divide—as, perhaps, it should be. This passage from Sons and Lovers returned me again to those winding paths. The scenario in the novel is intriguing precisely because, in love, something (someone) that is in some sense external to Mrs Morel becomes a part of herself, only to lose this status later. But “external” is a notoriously nebulous term, as is its opposite. Its sense must be fixed clearly before it becomes sensible. In this case, I see two relevant senses in which Morel is external to Mrs Morel. Biologically, they are two separate individuals, two distinct members of Homo sapiens. So also psychologically, Morel is another mind: Mrs Morel cannot share his consciousness, nor he hers. Yet they become, for a time, one.

This suggests to me a way of drawing the human/animal boundary, if perhaps in a merely transient, locally useful way: humans are the animals that can draw boundaries around themselves that do not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries—or, better, since Mrs Morel did not so much draw a boundary around herself as find that it had changed without her efforts: humans are the animals the boundaries of whose selves need not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries. I shall call this sense of self the “drawn self”. I do not like the phrase, but have none better.

Lawrence explores one way these selves may fail to coincide: the boundaries around one’s drawn self may include something biologically or psychologically external. I am here interested, however, in the opposite case, the case in which part of one’s biological and psychological self is left out of one’s drawn self. I am interested in self-mistrust, in skepticism of the body.

I must be clear what is not my concern. Our psychological and biological selves are not identical, and many traditions (including both the Stoic and the Christian traditions) have promoted a form of self-mistrust: they allied themselves with the mind (psychological) against the body (biological). Indeed, this was supposed to give us the human/animal boundary: the struggle of the mind/reason against the body/passions was the struggle of our humanity against our animality. This is not what interests me. That sharp split between the mind (the Stoic ruling center, the Christian seat of free will) is no longer believable. The mind is just a “region” of the body, just as evolved and animal as every other part, and it is not a special domain of “control” over the other parts, mysteriously exempt from ineluctable causality. So my interest is not in that asceticism in which the mind attempts to dominate the body—this is just one way in which the body may struggle against itself, and a way that seems to me based on mistaken premises.

My interest is rather in a self-mistrust that reflects the unity of mind and body, that sees aspects even of one’s own mind as not oneself, but as part of one’s circumstance. I see Nietzsche as a precursor of this thought, exemplified by his injunction against trusting one’s feelings: feelings are simply the residue of our ancestor’s judgments, inherited without our inheriting also the judgments. To trust one’s feelings would then be a form of conformity to circumstance.

So we are to reject parts of our biological selves, on the grounds that they are not part of our drawn selves. What attitude does this entail? If they are not part of our drawn self, they are part of our circumstance—often a harmful part. I suspect, for this reason, that we cannot maintain Stoic indifference toward these parts of our circumstance. They compete for control of our action and thought and so must be struggled against, perpetually—they cannot be accepted as the will of divine reason.

What am I to do with this, I who find myself so drawn to philosophies of self-reliance (including Nietzsche’s own)? What does self-reliance amount to, when the boundaries of my self are so shifting, when much of what is internal to my biological or psychological selves is not truly mine, when self-reliance entails a constant struggle against myself? How am I to identify what is my own, and what not?—but this question is poorly phrased: who is this “I” who is choosing? What can be trusted? Who trusts?

I have done all this work just to reach this point. Again and again I run up against it, but I cannot see my way past it, never before, and not now. I have done this work to reach the point of having more work to do. I suppose that is well.

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  1. 2014/04/26 at 22:30

    I think standing at this fork in the road you will find Walt Whitman. Like the scarecrow in the Most Famous Musical, he will point you in both directions. In this case, both directions will take you there. (Make sure you get him to sign a copy of his book for you while yer there.)

    • 2014/04/26 at 22:35

      Walt Whitman truly encompasses everything. I am just forging my way past the 1855 Leaves of Grass—who knows what I shall find?

    • 2014/04/26 at 22:42

      That’s the one. I just started re-re-re-reading this yesterday and am startled every couple of lines. Alongside the T’ang and Sung dynasty poets I’m reading it seems just as ancient and just as fresh. And I look forward to hearing about what you find in there.

    • 2014/04/26 at 22:45

      I was recommended a very nice volume ( http://www.amazon.com/Walt-Whitman-Selected-Poems-1855-1892/dp/0312267908/ref=sr_1_23?ie=UTF8&qid=1398566635&sr=8-23&keywords=walt+whitman ) that has the first versions of (all? most?) of his poems—none of his later editing/mauling in there. I’ve found that Whitman always prompts me to think (hence to write), so I will undoubtedly have more posts on him eventually. Right now, however, Ammons is taking up my attention, as far as poetry is concerned.

    • 2014/04/26 at 22:55

      I won’t begrudge you that! The Collected Poems is a great place to wander. Even the smaller Selected Poems (which covers his later stuff too) is fun to get lost in.

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