Meeting Myths

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 490)

 

This week, I revisited Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for Arts One. This text is one that has, in many ways, haunted me for almost a decade. I’ve read it several times, recommended it to others, and most importantly, struggled with it. Because you are meant to struggle with this text. It is meant to unsettle you, create dis-ease, confusion, uncertainty and–to put it bluntly–blow your mind. It is an exercise in thinking about something beyond thought, after all! And I think that’s why the text has always intrigued me. I am fascinated by the idea of pushing thought further and further, of testing the boundaries of intelligible reason, of wondering why Kierkegaard found himself so caught up in the intelligibility of the Abraham story.

On that last point, there is one enduring theory that is referenced even in the introduction to our own edition: Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard’s father was a melancholy man who was consumed by guilt and depression. His guilt was never entirely explained, but may have derived from the fact that he slept with Kierkegaard’s mother out of wedlock when she was still a maid in his home. Kierkegaard appears to have inherited this depressed, melancholy and guilt-ridden temperament from his father. His mother and several of his seven siblings died before Kierkegaard was 21, many dying in childhood. Kierkegaard himself was convinced that he would not live much past 33, though again, the reason for this is unclear. But this back-story is necessary in order to understand Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen.

Kierkegaard met Regine in 1837 and proposed to her in 1840. She accepted him. However, in 1841, Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, much to Olsen’s confusion and dismay. When he was asked why, Kierkegaard never did give a satisfactory answer. Some speculate that he broke the engagement off because he was afraid of his impending early death, and fearful of leaving Olsen widowed. Some said he was fearful that his melancholy temperament would make him an unsuitable husband and father. But some people suppose that Olsen was Kierkegaard’s Isaac; she was his test of faith. That is, Kierkegaard sometimes claimed that he could not see how be a good husband and father and be the religious scholar he felt called upon to be at the same time. While this might be dismissed as someone making the decision to pursue fame and glory over pursuing a life of home and family (a perfectly rational and intelligible decision) some scholars suggest that this is only what Kierkegaard said. What he meant, what he could not say, was that he was being tested.

If he was being tested, it seems possible that he failed the test. He never got Olsen back (as Abraham got Isaac). Instead, she married another, and Kierkegaard lived alone. However, indications are that he never stopped loving Olsen. He left everything to her in his will.  If he failed the test, it seems to have been because he could not sustain the duel movement of faith. Indeed, Johannes de Silentio claims at many places in Fear and Trembling to be able to understand, and even to make, the move of infinite resignation (giving up Isaac/Olsen) but not the double-movement required of faith (giving up Isaac/Olsen, but still believing that one will get him/her back somehow). That is, de Silentio cannot sustain the paradox of believing two conflicting beliefs. And it is possible that Kierkegaard cannot as well.

So, Kierkegaard’s fascination with the Abraham/Isaac story is often thought to result from his own love, and loss of, Regine Olsen. But I don’t want to jump too quickly to the conclusion that Kierkegaard and de Silentio are the same person, or share the same experiences and perspectives. They may, they may not. Indeed, part of the reason Kierkegaard may have written under this pseudonym may have been to distance himself from these ideas and theories. Another reason may have been his desire for us to meet these ideas on their own merits, and not do what I just did: explain them away as a result of Kierkegaard’s past experience.

Still, when I read this text, I am vividly aware of how intimate and passionate it is. This is not an essay. It is, as one student recently put it to me, more like a diary, or a stream of consciousness. It is a personal exploration of an old myth. Whether he intended to or not, whether this is about Olsen or not, the text will contain elements of Kierkegaard’s identity within it, simply because he wrote it. And, in writing it, he brought his own lived experiences to bear. This doesn’t invalidate Kierkegaard’s reading of the Abraham/Isaac story, nor do I think it allows us to dismiss his interpretation. What it does do, is illuminate something interesting about interpreting texts. Interpretation is personal. It is a meeting of you and the myth. You bring your life experiences to the meeting, and the myth brings all the past interpretations and discussions. But what comes out of this meeting is unique.

Which brings me to the quote from Camus with which I started this blog post. It’s one of my favorite Arts One quotes. And I think Kierkegaard exemplifies it. He breathes life into this Abraham story, possibly by breathing his own lived experiences, his own unfulfilled hopes and dreams, into the myth from Genesis. And in doing so, he attempts to flesh out the subtle characterizations of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah as represented in the original biblical text. We may not agree with the life he breathed into these texts. We may take issue with them, or delight in them, or be unsettled or confused by them. And we may want to breathe our own life both into Fear and Trembling and into Genesis itself.

All these options are open to us this week. In speaking about these texts, we bring them to life again. But, in speaking about them, we aren’t being silent.

Perhaps that’s another reason Johannes di Silentio (and by extension, Kierkegaard) returns to this text. Perhaps his obsession with this text was a way to drown out the silence.

 

For more on Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen, see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/

Tamar and Recognition

This week, I am going to breathe life into the myth of Judah and Tamar, as told in Genesis. Kant, in our other reading for this week, attempts to examine what the early chapters of the Genesis story have to tell us about our past, and about what is valuable in humanity. In the same spirit, I want to examine this tale from Chapter 38.

We are told in Chapter 38 of Genesis a short story of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. She is wed to Judah’s first-born son, Er, who promptly dies. (Being a first-born in Genesis carries its own unique risks worthy of a blog post devoted only to that topic, but I digress.) After Er dies, Judah weds Tamar to his next son, Onan, who also dies. Judah has, at this point, only one son left, Shelah. But Shelah is not yet of marriageable age. So, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house, promising to wed her to Shelah when Shelah is old enough. This is a promise that, apparently, Judah fails to keep. We are told that Tamar “saw that Shelah had grown up and she had not been given to him as wife.” (Genesis 38:14)

Tamar is in a disgraced position. She has been widowed twice, has no children, and has now been sent back to her father’s house. Our translation of the text comments on this disgrace in a footnote, and speculates that this may be, in part, due to Tamar’s own silence. She does not protest Judah’s decision to send her back to her father’s and she does not speak of the ways in which Onan incurred God’s wrath and may have been responsible for his own death. Indeed in this story the first instance in which Tamar speaks is after she has been sent to her father’s. Then, upon seeing Shelah achieve manhood and still be denied to her as a husband, Tamar not only speak but also acts.

She removes her widow’s clothing and dresses like a prostitute. Judah, happening upon Tamar at a crossroads, takes her for a prostitute and asks to lie with her. She agrees, but only if he will pay her a kid from his flock. Obviously he does not have his flock on hand, and so in lieu of payment he gives her his seal and cord (essentially his legal identification). Tamar conceives a child from this encounter, and then discards the prostitute costume and dresses as a widow again.

It comes to Judah’s attention that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. He is incensed that she would become pregnant when she is promised to Shelah and in mourning for his other two sons. He commands that she be burned to death and “out she was taken” (presumably for the sentence to be carried out). (Genesis 38:25). But Tamar produces the seal, and Judah realizes that the child is his. His response to this unveiling of the prostitute’s identity is intriguing. Upon realizing that he paid to lay with his daughter-in-law, and that the child she carries is his, Judah says “She is more right than I, for have I not failed to give her Shelah, my son?” (Genesis 38:26)

I find this interesting, because Tamar gains recognition as an individual (rather than just being a pawn passed from son to son, and from Judah’s house to her father’s house) by acting outside of the laws and norms laid out by the story. Judah gives her to first one son, and then another. But it is when she gives herself in payment for coin that Tamar gains recognition. If her silence does condemn her to disgrace, oddly her disgraceful act of concealing her identity and having sex with her father-in-law raises her up again.

It seems the more Tamar goes along with the plan that others have for her life, the more disgrace befalls her. However, once she speaks and acts, she gains recognition. But I’m curious to investigate how she speaks and acts. Because she does so explicitly by breaking societal norms (as evident by Judah’s quick decision to condemn her to death). Why doesn’t she simply confront Judah and ask him to wed her to his third son (if that’s what she wants) or explain that the death of his second son was Onan’s own doing?

We aren’t told why Tamar chooses to act as she does. So allow me to speculate. I’m not a religious studies scholar, and certainly no scholar of the Bible. So what I offer is a tentative suggestion. Perhaps Tamar cannot gain recognition within the social structure before her. Perhaps she remains silent because there is no space within the norms for Tamar to speak. There is no apporpriate avenue for her to gain recognition from her father-in-law. She is, then, finally driven to speak and act in ways that are non-normative, since the normative ways leave her no recourse.

In this way, Tamar could be a symbol for the struggles we might all face as we attempt to speak and seek recognition from those in power, especially when the norms of our society deny us a voice. She stands for a hopeful tale whereby acting outside of the norms of society (when there is no other way to have one’s voice heard) is rewarded rather than punished. But, as with many stories in Genesis we are left unsure of what the reward will be. We know that Judah recognizes Tamar (perhaps for the first time) as a human being with feelings, and rights, who has been hurt, shamed and wronged by his actions. He acknowledges this, and withdraws his harsh punishment as a result. But we are left to imagine what follows. Does he mend his ways? Or does he view his decision to cancel her death sentence as sufficient to make amends? How long does this recognition last?


Repetition and Sisyphus

“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” (Camus, Pg. 489)

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Sisyphus is cursed by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain, watching it come crashing down, walk back down the mountain after it, and roll the boulder up again. His life is an endless series of repetition. Worse than that, it is meaningless repetition. So then why does Albert Camus say that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Pg. 492)? How can one imagine Sisyphus happy?

Camus’ 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, is itself an exercise in repetition. Not only does he examine Sisyphus–a figure condemned to repeat the same task over and over–but his examination itself is a revisiting of a text that has been revisited before, and will, no doubt, be revisited again. (Not to get too self-conscious, but it is being revisited right now, as I write this). I choose this text as an introduction to the Arts One 2013-2014 ‘Remake/Remodel’ theme, because the text repeats a myth about repeating. So, if you’ve been keeping up, we are repeating a text that repeats a myth that is about the agony of repetition. So, in doing so have we just tripled our agony? Is Sisyphus happy? And are we?

There are a lot of reasons to think that the answer to these questions is ‘no’. Repetition is often boring. And it’s often not seen as very meaningful. After all, what is the point of doing something we’ve already done before. It’s like ‘reinventing the wheel’. The first guy to invent it is a genius. But after that, it just isn’t so impressive or important.

There is another reason to think the answers to the above questions should be ‘no’. Camus tells us that

“If the myth is tragic it is because the hero is conscious. What would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” (Pg. 491, emphasis added)

The implication seems to be that, if Sisyphus were not acutely self-conscious of the futility of the repetition he is forced to participate in, then things wouldn’t be so bad.Image

It’s because Sisyphus knows that what he is doing is futile that he feels its futility acutely. His awareness of its meaninglessness makes it meaningless. So, he is the author of his own empty life in virtue of his consciousness. Doesn’t sound too happy so far.

And it gets worse. Because this myth has been and can be treated as an allegory for life. Yeah, life! Under this reading it isn’t just that Sisyphus’s existence is meaningless, but that life just generally is pointless. After all, the repetition Sisyphus is engaged in is similar to the kind of repetition we are all engaged in. People are born. They live. They die. It’s been happening for hundreds of years. Worse than that, there is a sense in which many feel that even what they do with their lives has been done before. In the Bible, Ecclesiastes, we find the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun” and people often state that all the stories it is possible to tell have been told. There is a sense that there is no room for a truly novel ideal, or a truly unique experience. It’s all been done before. Probably hundreds of times before. We are all the authors of our own meaningless lives in virtue of our self-consciousness.

So by this point you should be getting the sense that this text is often seen as a bit of a downer. It should also come as no surprise that the first line of The Myth of Sisyphus is “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” (Pg. 441) So forget why we must imagine Sisyphus happy for a moment, how can we imagine it? And if we can’t then what’s the point of all the repetition?

There are a lot of reasons to think of The Myth of Sisyphus as a depressing myth. There are a lot of reasons to find repetition tedious. But, that’s not the end of the story. As Camus revisits familiar ground in retelling this Greek myth, he illustrates what can be uplifting and creative in the act of repetition. Camus writes that “Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.” (Pg. 490) The myth of Sisyphus is lacking in detail at times. It doesn’t tell us everything. It leaves things open to interpretation, and grants us the ability to fill in the blanks.

The details are lacking on purpose, according to Camus. The lack of detail allows the possibility for the myth to change even as it remains the same. Because the reader or the listener will change it. One sees it in a new way, a way unique to one’s own perspective in this time and this place. And this is not only true for the Sisyphus myth, but for every text we will read this term. Every text has been read by people before you. Every text has been talked about and written about by people before you. But none of them have been read by you. Here. Now. Even when you revisit these texts in the future (and we all hope you do) they will never be the same as they are right now. Because you will have changed, and your surroundings will have changed.

So I want to suggest that there is a tension in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. The tension is between the apparent meaningless of retracing the steps of others over familiar ground, and the freedom to make this journey one’s own through one’s own unique perspective, imagination and conscious life. I wrote above that we are the authors of our own empty lives in virtue of our self-consciousness. But it is also in virtue of our self-consciousness that we can give our lives meaning. This is one of the tensions that I hope to explore this term in Remake/Remodel: the ways in which existing patterns, structures, myths and customs both constrain us and offer us ways to freely and creatively express ourselves.

Camus argues that, even though Sisyphus is trapped in a repetitive structure, within that structure he is free. “His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. . . he knows himself to be the master of his days.” (Pg. 492). The structure is in place, but what he chooses to do within that structure is up to him!

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Works Cited: Camus, Albert The Myth of Sisyphus” in Basic Writing of Existentialism, Gordon Marino (ed.) New York: The Modern Library. 2004. Pp. 442-488


Foe and the Narrative View of Self

As someone with a long standing interest in Marya Schechtman’s narrative view of self, I was fascinated by reading J.M. Coetzee’s novel Foe (a retelling of Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe) this term in Arts One. The book seems to me to be exploring (among other things) the challenges of establishing who one is in a narrative form when others seek to take control of one’s own story. It suggests that one’s self can never be entirely altered by another because a narrative is never able to entirely capture one’s self.

Schechtman, in her 1996 book The Constitution of Selves tells us that personhood is created through constructing a narrative that makes sense of one’s past experiences and memories. But the stories one tells in order to construct one’s self must be stories that can be understood by others. Schechtman says

“[p]ersonhood, it might be said, is an intrinsically social concept. To enter into the world of persons, an individual needs, roughly speaking, to grasp her culture’s concept of a person and apply it to herself.” (Schechtman, 94)

The idea that the stories one tells about oneself have to be intelligible to others is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Whether or not this is all that persons are (as the narrative view of self maintains) the fact is, we do tell stories. In fact, with Twitter, and blogs, and Facebook and a host of other ways of sharing information, we are telling stories about ourselves to anyone who will listen (or to no one, as the case may be, but that’s another problem). What if others don’t find you to be intelligible? What if they want to tell another story about you? One they think makes more sense than your own does?

As I approached Foe I already had these questions in mind. And in the novel, I found some of the same themes being dealt with. Susan Barton, one of the main characters of the text, returns to England from having been shipwrecked upon an island, and sets out to have her story told. She approaches the famous author Foe and requests that he write her tale for her since she does not see herself as a writer capable of giving birth to this narrative. At first it seems that her aim in doing so is purely for fame and money. She wants to be recognized, and she wants the story to sell well.

But as Foe pushes her to spice the story up a bit (by including pirates and cannibals) Barton pushes back, adamant that the tale of being stranded by itself is enough, lamenting “[a]las, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?” (Coetzee, Pg. 67) But Foe is equally determined to see the shipwrecked story changed somehow. He responds that “‘The island is not a story itself,’”(Coetzee, Pg. 117).

The problem is that, generally in Western European culture, we expect certain things from stories. We expect them to be logically and causally connected, and we expect them to move in four parts: the intro, the rising action, the climax and the conclusion in which everything is wrapped up. But life doesn’t follow expectation. Barton’s experience on the island had no climax and many things were left unresolved. And so I wonder if our struggles to tell stories about ourselves that others find intelligible and interesting are struggles against a part of who we are. I wonder if Soren Kierkegaard was right when he claimed that something is always left unsaid or unexpressed in our speech.

This wondering leads me to the character of Friday. Friday, in Coetzee’s novel, does not speak. It is rumored that he cannot speak, because his tongue was cut out. In any case, he does not (and perhaps cannot) tell his own story to anyone else. In one sense, this leaves Friday open to the interpretation of others. He cannot push back as Barton pushes back against Foe’s re-framing of her narrative. As Barton tells us

“Friday has no command of words and therefore no defense against being reshaped day by day in conformity with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal; I say he is a laundryman, and he becomes a laundryman.” (Coetzee, Pg. 121)

But Barton’s view of Friday’s lack of agency seems a bit too simplistic. For the last section of Coetzee’s novel leaves me with a paragraph that challenges Barton’s account of Fridays maleable identity.

“But this is not a place of words. . . This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday.” (Coetzee, Pg. 157)

I am left wondering about this relationship of narratives to bodies. What does it mean to say bodies are their own signs? Friday is still interpreted by Barton in various ways, and yet at the same time seems untouched and unchanged by her interpretations. His inability to communicate renders him untouched by this re-framing of his story. And yet he doesn’t seem to have a robust individuality that is conveyed through the story. Instead, the suggestion arises again and again that Friday is a void. He is empty and hollow, signified by the gap in his mouth where his tongue should be. If he is not reinterpreted and remade by others, the suggestion exists in the text that part of the reason for this is because there is no substance to be remade. But there is a substance. He is a body.

If personhood is social, Friday is not a person. Yet his physical existence is a sign of his personhood, even if he does not participate in the social creation of his own stories. Schechtman argues that some individuals (babies and those in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, for example) can fail to be persons because they cannot tell a coherent story about themselves. Friday cannot tell a coherent story either. However, the reason he cannot has less to do with his psychological organization and more to do with his physical body. He cannot speak. Much as Abraham, in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling cannot speak.

Perhaps, the suggestion in this work is that narratives leave something unspoken. A void. The self cannot be fully articulated. And if that is the case, it cannot be fully altered by those who seek to make our stories more intelligible, more exciting, and more to their liking. No matter how much we fill ourselves with stories, the silence will always emerge.