Monday, June 28, 2010

Amazing May 23

Transcending the Immediate Situation

This is a short but important chapter in May’s little classic called The Discovery of Being (Norton, NY, 1981). As readers of this blog will know its author suffers from endogenous depression with which he has been diagnosed for some twelve years. At the beginning, before the proper or appropriate medication was found, I suffered two bad episodes of depression, both of which lasted for some twelve weeks. What helped me immensely during the second episode which happened roughly a year after the first was the fact that I was aware that I had previously come through the hell of despair and had survived. What helped me here was that I was able to transcend, or literally go beyond the present experience of despair and realise that it too would come to an end just like the previous episode.

May paraphrases the neurosurgeon and psychiatrist, Kurt Goldstein who was working with severely brain-damaged soldiers and gives as good a description as is possible of what transcendence means:

Goldstein holds that the distinctive capacity of the normal human being is precisely this capacity to abstract, to use symbols, to orient oneself beyond the immediate limits of the given time and space, to think in terms of “the possible.” The injured or ill patients were characterized by loss of range of possibility. Their world space was shrunk, their time curtailed, and they suffered a consequent loss of freedom. (Ibid., p. 145)

The normal human being can transcend his present situation in all kinds of ways. He can transcend the present moment in time by either bringing back images and memories from the past, or by dreaming about what he/she can do in the future. Transcendence allows us not to be shackled to the present. It also, I should imagine, allows us to use our creativity and imagination, because if we are shackled to the present we could not write poetry or novels or create art of any quality. I should imagine that a brain injured person could do some very basic writing or art, but not anything of substance that we’d associate with pure art, pure music or pure literature.

Then think of those survivors of concentration camps of all types, Nazi, Stalinist or the prison on Robin Island where Nelson Mandela languished for years on end. Without the ability to transcend their situation those few survivors simply would not have come through their horrific experience. They were able to go beyond the bounds of their present situation and imagine that another situation was possible, that not alone things could get better, but that things in all probability would get better.

May reminds us that such transcendence is also exemplified in the human being’s unique capacity to think and talk in symbols. By typing these very words here and now, I am able to transcend the book I am reading, by interpreting all the ciphers and symbols on the page, seeing them as words which carry meaning, put those words together into sentences with more meaning, build sentences into paragraphs with main ideas and then reach forward to a world of complex ideas, assimilate all that, then evaluate it for my present purposes, link it with my own ideas and experiences and re-mould the whole into the present post in this blog. I have been enabled to do this by being able to engage in transcendence.

Again one needs to be able to transcend one’s immediate situation if one is to reach out and relate to others, to engage in human or social relations, to become a living part of a vibrant community. Indeed May gives us a lovely insight into conscience by once again elucidating its etymological roots for us. He tells us that conscience means “to know with,” to have built up this knowledge of behaviour from others in the greater community.

Telling the truth and telling lies are both examples of being able to transcend or go beyond oneself. This is what Nietzsche meant when he described man as “the animal who can make promises.” (Quoted ibid., p. 146). An individual is aware that he has given his word and can see himself as the one who makes an agreement. In the same way Sartre writes that dishonesty is a uniquely human behaviour: “The lie is a behaviour of transcendence.”(Quoted ibid., p. 146)

Now, we again come to one of May’s favourite words, i.e., ontological. The capacity for transcendence is not a quality to be listed among other qualities. Rather it is given in the very nature of being. It is part of being human – it’s an ontological reality.

Man is the being who is able to self-transcend, or to put it differently, he is able to transcend himself. May once again gives us very interesting throw-away remarks, often related to etymology and language structure. Here he informs us that it is very interesting to note how often the prefix “re-“ appears in English, which shows this self-reflection of man: re-turn, re-sponsible, re-collect, re-member, re-late, re-view etc. This is the capacity he has to come back to himself after transcending himself.

Indeed, self-consciousness implies self-transcendence. Here, I feel, we need to hear the very words May writes for the sake of clarity:

It will have become apparent to many readers that the capacity to transcend the immediate situation uniquely presupposes Eigenwelt – that is the mode of behaviour in which the person sees himself as subject and object at once. The capacity to transcend the situation is an inseparable part of self-awareness, for it is obvious that the mere awareness of oneself as a being in the world implies the capacity to stand outside and look at oneself and the situation and to assess and guide by an infinite variety of possibilities. (Ibid., p. 147)

The capacity to see oneself as subject and object at once is a wonderful and, indeed, complicated process. The split between the two wrought by Descartes, but built greatly upon by legions of philosophers, scientists and scholars over the last 400 years, has led to much mental suffering in the form of various neuroses. We have also seen that May would see the task of psychotherapy as not alone essaying a healing of the split but actually going down under the subject-object split and working from there. This leads to a great irony, or even irony of ironies, which can be expressed succinctly in the words of Lawrence Kubie:

It may be accurate to say, therefore, that the neurotic process is the price that we pay for our most precious human heritage, namely our ability to represent experience and communicate our thoughts by means of symbols. (Quoted p. 148)

Again, interestingly, May seems to suggest that Kierkegaard puts imagination on a par with transcendence and perhaps suggests that they are virtually the same reality. I’m not too sure about this and May’s intent is not that clear here. If I am ever to pick up Kierkegaard, it would be a train of thought worth pursuing.

Above another picture I took at Franco's restaurant, Le Due Cassette, last week.  He has loads of old bits and pieces belonging to the country life here in Calabria!

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