Monday, July 14, 2008

On Individualism & Transcendentalism

another kitchen collage:
banana, four-balls, fridge magnet
One hallmark of American Transcendentalism may be its celebration of the self, including its so-called "earthly" (or "earthy") aspects which some other traditions have tended to demonize, or at least ridicule, in an effort to dominate or control.

Making the self or persona a project, or series of projects (as in "self reinvention"), requires a level of detachment, which is where "transcendence" enters the equations.

Ideally, the alchemical archetype surrounding such work is one of serene equanimity, versus wallowing in paranoia and/or megalomania and/or other obnoxious conditions, each with its attendant signs of imbalance.

Walt Whitman's
Songs of Myself gives a good sense of the aesthetic that helped get the ball rolling here.

Managing one's identity is a responsibility, and a privilege, not a curse, a way to participate in Creation just as surely as having a body is (the two go together).

The association of "subjectivity" with "responsibility" is in contrast to more repressive teachings about cultivating "cold dispassion" towards "untrustworthy emotions" or whatever.

Celebrating the integrity of one's subjective individuality hearkens back to Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which exposes the hollowness of hiding out behind some omniscient- sounding "objective voice" and using that voice to tell history, versus accepting personal responsibility for adding a spin.

Accepting responsibility for "creating a self" is an essential move within existentialism and related psychologies, in turn a healing response to the devastation of WWI.

Post-modernism was perhaps more rebellious than brave in its protests against "objectivity" (associated with authoritarian voice overs, especially in documentary film making), whereas more rugged individualists, such as Hunter S. Thompson, embraced a "new journalism" on the understanding that these wildly differing perspectives might co-exist as our collective heritage within our shared democratic context (worth defending!).

Making "identity crafting" a chief responsibility (like a full time job) is akin to the "soul-making" project of James Hillman, a Jungian talking about individuation, or "self actualization" (Maslow). The alchemical experience of Synergy is one of a guiding and/or intuitive hand (God's grace and/or will), such that one's own person becomes a vehicle for surfing atop a broader, more oceanic intelligence, an experience of Inner Light as Quakers are wont to call it.

Minus transcendence, "identity crafting" degenerates into shallow self- absorption, other lower forms of consciousness (or unconsciousness). The Catholics are right to warn us about the high cost of vanity, the prideful taking of personal credit for that which emerged from deeper sources. The ego is not forged by the ego alone, another way of casting the "no self nature" teaching, a dharma perpetually frustrating to Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost. To invert Paul Tillich's pithy meme, it takes courage to not be as well (i.e. to accept the only quasi- or even pseudo- reality of the persona, the mask).

Individuation actually involves increasing one's awareness of otherness, multiplying the variety of viewpoints from which one's self and one's world might be viewed. Fuller quotes Robert Burns on this subject, at the start of his Critical Path: "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us." Know thyself!