Sunday, May 16, 2010

On futility and lost causes

The "lost cause" movement to redefine the post-Civil War southern United States, its beliefs, its essential identity and sense of social cohesion, its collective goals, efforts, achievements, and its eventual identification with other states of being analogous to defeat and sorrow, can of course be carried across wholesale into the psychological realm as a lingering metaphor, and I tend to use it these days to draw a circle around regret, ageism, or melancholy stemming from fantasies of missed opportunities. The "moonlight and magnolia" treacle of the essential Old South romantic myths is too 19th century or Byronic to escape my sour skepticism, so I temper it with ironic 20th-century reflections in order to abrade it with self-deprecating smiles...I can pick up John Brown Gordon, for example, with one hand while listening to Patsy Cline and the resulting syrupy maudlinness is humorous enough to both deflate my pretensions and allow me to laugh at any kind of melancholy, be it Southern, American, antiquated, or smooth gun-gray modern. Yet it still has its uses, and if one is the right mood and not deflected by fears of sentimentality or adolescent wallowing in self-pity (as if "adults" didn't invent an entire morality around this emotional range), then I suppose the lost cause metaphor becomes weighty enough to carry meaning for a day's emotions, or even a week's, maybe a month's. It depends on one's constitution. In the 21st century we are possessed by irony and can not escape the eternal watcher over our shoulders who laughs at any display of emotion, no matter how "authentic" it may be. But how do we even judge this authenticity? Isn't it completely relative?

Always obsessed with his weight, by the time he returned to Athens in the middle of October he was skeletal. Byron was delighted by his appearance. Sligo one day found him admiring himself in front of a looking-glass. Byron remarked that he should like to die of consumption. His bewildered friend asked why, eliciting the reply that the ladies would all say, "Look at that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying."

- Grosskurth, from Byron: The Flawed Angel, pages 120-1

There appears to be play-acting even in our most unguarded, intimate moments, every phrase or word is a cliché, every reaction a moment pulled from fiction or memories or fantasies. Even as we walk through our lives on the inside we retreat into niches of withdrawal and minute reflection, observing ourselves even as we act out what are supposed to be moments of utter abandon or "life-affirming" passion. The question always is: are there actual "real" emotions (in the sense of uncontrolled reactions, immediate confrontations between desire and reality) anymore? The "anymore" constantly posits the preceding-present split, the chasm between the Modern and the Transcended, the schism between morbid self-awareness and what we take to have been an idyllic, uncomplicated, neurosis-free past. But this is of course just an illusion...our poses of sophistication and ironic distance are shallow and impotent protections from the world and when subject to eruptions of the "unconsciousness" we are as powerless as any of the people of the past we have supposedly transcended. I'm convinced that since consciousness evolved in human beings, men and women have been able to distance themselves from their own emotions...this "self-reflection" and ability to remove one's self from immediacy (environment, surface emotions and reactions) is the source of The Fall, our disconnection from Nature. This ironic distance adds to self-doubt, pessimism, suspicion, and the "depersonalizing" effect of an disconnection between the self and immediacy (both internal and external), but can it control the unconscious, the inner world folded inside, the world of dreams and strongest desires? No. A short time ago I experienced an unalloyed emotion so strong and undeniable that it came upon me like a sudden illness, and it has colored (both subtly and overwhelmingly) my existence since that point. In a moment my ironic detachment was left torn and helpless behind me...and I reached back into the past and grasped at it only because it was familiar, because I thought I could still find refuge from my own heart and mind inside of it. As an immediate response a new irony was born and I thought of myself as someone who could no longer believe even in his own detachment, but that thought was washed away as well. For a few days I knew, again, complete helplessness, and that feeling was both exhilarating and frightening, although of course it made me wonder if my "normal" state of detachment was just a feeble illusion all together. Was the subsidence of my passion a natural event or the return of an illusion? Only my dreams know for sure. Right now I am still half in and half out of this world.

There are those who of course love to dwell in melancholy, and they curse their existence with relish - as melancholy can add momentary, subjective meaning to suffering and make even the most paltry, pathetic movements of "normal" waking/walking life assume some kind of narrative resonance, as if one was living out the ash-tinged life of the accursed. I'm assuming that melancholy has always been as laughably fashionable and/or stylish as it is now, people mistaking the outer for the inner, of course, melancholy for profundity or actual life-altering regret, petty disappointment and momentary sadness for true sorrow, authentic regret (which has the scream of oppression in it, bound to events or a life one did not choose). There is always something of the spectacle in the inner, absorbed man walking through the world - the inner, again, as outer, the "absence" of the melancholic who folds in upon himself and refuses to engage directly with the present, with his immediate reality. One of the curses of the Modern is the constant necessity of thinking one is cut off permanently from the past, as if there was a sudden evolution in the 18th and 19th centuries which eternally separated us from the people who had lived before. This is just another illusion. I regret/reject arguments of "human nature" or simplistic evaluations of the "eternally human" or "eternal values" and go directly to the particular. I relate to Thucydides as I would my next door neighbor. There isn't an essential "human nature" that was displayed in one form then, and another now, and which links us together through tenuous shades of interpretation and self-illustration, self-creation of meaning. There never was a split between the past and the present - they are, essentially, the same time. Nothing has changed on the inside. In thinking of melancholy and its pathetic permanence I have to let the image of Hamlet rise up, of course, but then I immediately go back to Hecuba in Euripides' "Trojan Women":

Alas! Alas! Whose wretched slave shall I be? Where, where on earth shall this old woman toil, useless as a drone, poor counterpart of a corpse, a feeble, ghastly ornament?

The fall of Troy, then, has more than an immediate, surface resemblance to the fall of the Old South. We have Aeneas wandering for years and years after he loses his house, his wife (lost in the darkness, swallowed by fire, as if in a dream), his city and state, his rulers, his friends, his entire sense of identity...cast out as a wanderer and only given a fate to carry him through heartbreak and pain, for so long, through so many worlds...even through death, eventually. One wonders if, when he leaves Dido, he mourns not only for missed opportunities and the love that he is leaving behind him, but that imperious yoke and hissing whip of Futurity (his will is not his own, he resists at his own peril)...or if, as he boards his ship and casts off for Italy from Carthage, awakened from terrible dreams of those eternally-beckoning ideals of "home" and "rest", he feels sadness for the shallowness of his own heart, the ease with which he flees the love he supposedly felt so deeply, that was halting his "destiny". I take Aeneas to be the first true man of melancholy, at least on my bookshelf, as the Homeric heroes, if suffering from that affliction, wallow in it and are struck down by "darkness" as if it is a sickness from Without, from the Other. Aeneas is the first to live through his melancholy, to find in it a sense of identity, a nobility, a meaning that corrodes all others meanings, and eventually all happiness, all life. In Aeneas we see the melancholy of Duty and Fate, of the recognition of man's small and inconsequential place as a meeting or nexus of fate, history, genetics, choice, regret, honor, reflection, and desire. There are those who have called Virgil's Aeneas a "pale" fixture, a "ghost" or half-being, but this is just a surface evaluation...what these critics do not seem to recognize is that in between Homer and Virgil and across the distance from early Greece to imperial Rome (even a Rome that ostensibly modeled its literature on Greek archetypes) the meaning and inner nature of heroism had changed. Others say that Aeneas may be "cosmopolitan" in the 1st century B.C. Roman form, a sophisticate who has seen more of the world than any Homeric hero (as a metaphorical representative of a world empire), but those qualities supposedly end up making him more "human" in our view, more "modern" - as if "modern" human beings were the first to grasp all the complexities of the psyche or external existence, as if the languages of mythology, theology, and history in the past aren't just as complex and all-encompassing as our own languages of technology, medicine, and psychology. In the 21st century I relate to Aeneas in the same way I relate to John Brown Gordon, one sees the humanity in both wanting to surmount the particular in the search for the eternal, one sees both searching for meaning in ideals that are often empty and cold without the lifeblood of cataclysmic events pulsing through them, illustrating them in immediacy. In this sense, and in the relation to the "lost cause" I see them both as being typical, as everymen, I see them raising melancholy to the status of the everyday filter through which one interprets reality, the moments that eventually make up one's life.

I suppose the attraction of the lost cause metaphor and lifestyle is that it does of course offer a ready fund of meaning through which to interpret one's present and past actions, and it is a constant source of applied movement (propulsion, repulsion, exhortations) towards the future. If one didn't regret the past there would be little impetus to better it in the dreams of the future, and if one didn't find meaning in losses of the past I suppose one could not hope to find much meaning in an impenetrable time to come. The lost cause, although an absence or denial of possibilities, is at least a solid source of identity: one defines one's self in relation to a string of failures which are at least events and not lapses in time or non-entities. One takes one's pain close to one's heart and calls it one's own. But these are all just surface values. As I walked around the city today I couldn't help but feel imprisoned, as I know Aeneas did, by my fate, by my own personality, by the "identity" I have forged for myself now and which is nothing but a collection of memories that could be removed by a few flicks of a scalpel excising redundant tissue. There is the urge, everpresent, to drop the lost cause and all other myths, all symbols, all knowledge, all "meaning", all thoughts of the past and the future. There is the desire, which has only been growing stronger over the past year, to go nameless, faceless, lifeless, deathless. To walk through walls...

U. Amtey
01 December 2004
20:48 CST
NP: Jarl - Sealed Void