Comment on The Cult of Me

Saturday, 27. June 2009

Please feel free to comment on this theme as it builds over coming weeks.

6 Responses to “Comment on The Cult of Me”

  1. Vincent Says:

    There are hints that the theme is about harmony and sharing as opposed to naked egotism, the “cult of me”.

    I think the difficulty with the style of this, as with self-help books in general, is the inevitability of making assumptions about the reader’s own lifestyle and interpretations. These are things the writer cannot know. He only knows his own case and cannot assume to have greater wisdom than his reader.

    This is why I came to the conclusion, in my own writing, that I can only speak from my own case, can only tell my own humble narrative.

    In particular, I am not sure that anyone’s life can easily be described as the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, or even the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of sadness. For if this were the case, who would ever join the army, given that the chances of pain and sadness are much higher than in other walks of life?

    I tend to feel that we tell ourselves stories, and must carefully note the extent that these stories reflect cultural norms rather than observed facts.

    For example, European medical practitioners were trained in, and accepted as true, the ideas of Aristotle and other Greeks about how the human mind and body work, long after they had evidence before their eyes that reality was not in agreement with those authorities.

    But it is characteristic of our human nature to erect “straw men” as the lawyers put it, false ideas of the way things are, so as to provide a basis for our own treatments to set things to rights.

    So my response to your analysis so far would be: “You may be right in assuming that there is something to be fixed, and that till then our journey through life is tainted. But that doesn’t mean I’m about to accept your diagnosis of what’s wrong in the first place. Any sentence you start with ‘Most people…’ is waiting to be challenged; for I am not sure that an author can talk any more authoritatively about ‘most people’ than any of his readers, most of whom are likely to be in the category of ‘most people’ themselves.”

    If I have been to the North Pole, I have every right to write about it as an author. Or I might have not been there, merely researched the topic. But if I am talking about life in general, it seems that every possible reader is just as much an expert as I.

  2. Steven Holmes Says:

    If a reader takes these words personally, Vincent, words like “yours” and “most people” then I can see how my use of them might offend people who consider themselves different from the herd. That does not change my meaning, however; I use the term “most people” based on more than fifty years of listening intuitively to what people say and watching intuitively the way that they live and the things that they do. I therefore feel justified in claiming that “most people” live entirely for their own perceived self interest and that even their affections are reserved for persons who are part of their own idea of themselves as part of a group or family. I cannot see how that could be offensive, because it is true. Not all human beings have even thought of the fine ethical distinctions you have chosen to make your hallmark. It is actually self evident that “most people” are mostly pursuing their own perceived “happiness” and the actual problem is that this makes them a lot less happy than they would be with a broader moral compass.

  3. Steven Holmes Says:

    But you have got me thinking and it itches, because I very much see your point and I thoroughly understand why you make it. Sometimes I use that voice of “I” and “my experience” and it does have a kind of purity. It’s just that I don’t dislike the other, the voice of the prophet. In fact I find it lurking in “most people” and so I’d better be straight about its existence in me. For me it simply wouldn’t be true that all individual voices have equal merit. When I read someone like Coetzee, for example, I find the fake modesty of his claims to knowledge fairly offensive. Give me Hardy or Lawrence, any day, with their relaxed assumption of authorial omnipotence, because they are more honest than modern authors who hide behind spurious reality (McEwan), self conscious stream of consciousness (almost any American), underwhelming archetypal mood creation (Coetzee and many others, whatever… Lawrence, especially, dares to imagine people’s hearts and the fact that he’s only approximating makes his portraits no less interesting because at least he’s reaching out of himself…

    I think this is an important topic, Vincent, so I’m grateful that you raised it. I suspect we may always hold different corners.

  4. Vincent Says:

    I’m indebted to you Steve too for pointing out these hallmark ethical distinctions, which I hadn’t thought of in that way, and the effect they have on my choice of authors. I don’t think I could read Lawrence these days, or Hardy (have never read him anyhow). Dickens I have developed an antipathy to. I rent DVDs by post and am constantly topping up the list of films to see, but my horizons are limited by rarely choosing those made in Hollywood.

    A common thread lies behind these choices, perhaps: not just a tendency to accept people on their own valuations (& merely avoiding those I don’t want to spend time with) but something beyond that. To please me, an author or film director must not filter reality with his or her judgements; but present to me characters whom I can appreciate for myself, on their own terms.

    I did try to read a Coetzee book, about Robinson Crusoe, but couldn’t get on with it.

    John Cowper Powys was a great admirer of Hardy but I don’t know if you could describe his style as authorial omnipotence. He has a profound sympathy with every character he portrays, because he endows each one of them with characteristics he finds in himself, and plays out dramas corresponding to his own psyche. He fought successfully with his own tendency to sadism, and through that is able to portray would-be or actual murderers, or callous industrialists, as oddly sympathetic characters; though he takes enormous care not to arouse in his readers those excitements which he knew from his own case to be obsessive, dangerous and potentially criminal.

    It is part of my survival strategy (or what Powys would call my “life-illusion”) not to question another person’s perception of happiness, or make any moral judgement upon them. Naturally I am like the next person in advocating high moral standards and the use of civil powers to protect people against harmful acts; but this doesn’t stand in the way of treating every person or thing with respect.

    Rather than consider that “most people” are less happy than they might be, if they had a different moral compass, I find that treating each with the highest respect, as if they were the Lord in disguise, makes me a lot happier than I would be judging them.

    But of course it’s not easy to pursue this ideal in the world, for reality is always being filtered through the testimony of others. The news media tell us tales of corruption and misery, for example, so we react with the appropriate emotions as they intend us to. It takes some effort to treat their provocative reporting as a kind of fiction.

  5. Steven Holmes Says:

    So, what we have here is fascinating: I am naturally judgemental and I relish being so because I’m fickle and unbelievably forgiving. You are naturally judgemental and you try not to be so because being like that troubles you. Your remarks about hardy are revealing. I just find him sentimental and deterministic. It takes all sorts to make a world and everything is its own opposite, n’est ce pas?

  6. Vincent Says:

    My comments were on John Cowper Powys, not Hardy! Have never read Hardy. Sorry my sentence wasn’t clear enough.

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