It has become something of a critical cliché to end a review or an essay with a phrase such as “…and find out something about what it means to be human”. The elevation of this simple characterisation of a piece’s themes and ideas into a full-blown cliché is partly a reflection of its over-use by unimaginative critics and partly a reflection of the sheer number of works of art that attempt to engage with issues of personal identity. Indeed, the crisis of identity is perhaps the central recurring theme behind all of modern literature. However, despite all of the books, films and plays devoted to excavating conceptions of the self, surprisingly little headway has been made. We are still alienated from our deepest desires. We are still trapped between the need to be social creatures and the desire to be true to ourselves. We are still fundamentally estranged from each other’s subjectivities.
In fact, art’s lack of progress has been so complete that one might well be tempted to conclude that art — whether it be literary, dramatic, cinematic or figurative — simply lacks the capacity to generate the kind of robust truths that stand up to close intellectual scrutiny. After all, if one does not turn to interpretative dance when one wants to discern the nature of a neutron star, why should we turn to poetry when we want to discover who we are?
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson’s extended essay Absence of Mind – The Dispelling of Inwardness From The Modern Myth of The Self is an attempt to address this very question. Robinson feels that the rise and rise of scientific conceptions of the self have resulted in a general impoverishment of discourse surrounding human nature. An impoverishment that has left us alienated not only from the many ancient and richly metaphysical traditions embodied by the arts, philosophy, and religion, but also from ourselves and our willingness to trust our own insights into who we are and what we want.
Unfortunately, rather than clearly defenestrating these shrunken visions of humanity and providing a sustained and rigorous argument in favour of a richly metaphysical conception of the self, Robinson provides us with a one hundred and thirty page-long howl of entitlement. Robinson is sloppy in her choice of targets, meretricious in her engagement with science and vacuous in her proclamations. Absence of Mind is a book that fizzles with anger at the idea that scientists refuse to take Robinson’s private intuitions into account when formulating their theories but when the time comes for Robinson to articulate a reason — any reason — as to why they should, she remains oddly silent. Absence of Mind is a book written with little insight and with little to say.
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The existential tradition — via Pascal, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre — has it that there is no fundamental essence to human existence: For Pascal, our nature lies in our customs. For Sartre, existence precedes essence. A simple way of interpreting this viewpoint is through the notion that we, as individuals, are radically free and that we define ourselves through our actions. But if this vision of the self is correct then what does it mean for society as a whole? what does it mean for our culture? For an answer to this, we must look to Heidegger. The American philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus interprets Heidegger as saying that each culture defines for itself what it means to be human. This conception of human nature allows them to live as though each culture has a predefined essence, an absolute morality and an objective meaning of life. As history changes, so too does the conception of human nature and all of the philosophical infrastructure built up around it. Looking back on discrete periods of human history such as Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, it is relatively easy to isolate their conceptions of being in the world because those conceptions were fully articulated by particular authors; Homer in the case of the Ancient Greeks and Dante in the case of the Medieval Christians.
One’s attitude to this understanding of the evolution of culture will most likely depend upon the amount of ontological weight one ascribes to Heidegger’s conception of being-in-the-world:
In his book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Julian Jaynes argues that the ancient Greeks had a fundamentally different form of consciousness to contemporary humans. A form of consciousness that made introversion impossible but which allowed desires and ideas to take perceived physical form in the shape of gods. According to Jaynes, Homer’s descriptions of human cognition were literally true at the time. Under this interpretation of Homer, there is a near one-to-one correspondence between the scientific understanding of existence and that of Heidegger: This we can call the Strong Dasein Hypothesis.
The other way of looking at the issue is voiced by Brian Boyd in his On The Origin of Stories – Evolution, Cognition and, Fiction (2009), which states that the difference between Homer and Proust is not that Homer’s mind worked differently to Proust’s but that the folk psychological model that informed Homer’s writing was less advanced than that which informed the rendering of Proust’s characters. So Homer’s failure to discuss the inner psychology of his characters does not reflect his own lack of inner state but rather an incomplete conceptual framework which did not allow for this inner state to be rendered in a fictional form. According to this view, which we can call the Weak Dasein Hypothesis, Heidegger spoke not of being but of world-view and dealt not in actual things but in perceptions.
Regardless of where one stands along a presumed spectrum of attitudes towards Heideggerian ontology, the fact remains that art does reflect upon how we think about ourselves. So how do we represent the modern self? Again, there is a spectrum of viewpoints. The literary critic for The New Yorker James Woods argues in his book How Fiction Works (2008) that the novel effectively reached a state of perfection with the development of the “free indirect style” prevalent in the work of authors such as Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Proust. However, David Shields has argued in his book Reality Hunger – A Manifesto (2010) that many of the techniques and conceits of the modern novel are hopelessly outdated when it comes to describing a culture imbued with radically different values by individuals with very different conceptions of themselves and their place in the world. As an example of works that do capture our epochal Dasein, Shields offers up a list of works mostly drawn from the emerging genre of creative or literary non-fiction. Works such as Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, a collection of themed essays which, as the book’s sub-title assures us, is not a memoir.
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