“Habit is everything, even in love,” says Vauvenargues, and you remember La Rochefoucauld’s maxim? “How many men would never have known love if they had never heard of love?” Are we not justified in asking: How many would never be jealous, if they did not hear jealousy spoken about, and had not persuaded themselves that it was imperative to be jealous?
Yes, convention is the great breeder of falsehood. How many are forced to play their life long a part strangely foreign to themselves? And how difficult it is to discern in ourselves a feeling not previously described, labelled, and present before us as a model! Man finds it easier to imitate everything than to invent anything. How many are content to live their lives warped by untruth, and find, none the less, in the very falsity of convention more comfort and less need for effort than in straightforward affirmation of their personal feelings! Such affirmation would require of them an effort of invention utterly beyond them.
Reading André Gide’s Dostoevsky I am reminded again to read Gide’s journals that I bought after reading of Sontag’s admiration. Like his subject, Gide possesses acute psychological insight.
Gide’s novel, Strait Is the Gate, which I read twice, is full of subtle truth. I still recall the mood the novel evoked in me. Incidentally, my edition of Strait Is the Gate was translated by Dorothy Bussy, sister of Lytton Strachey, whose letters to Gide are also rather amusing.
The maxim, “How many men would never have known love if they had never heard of love?” is extraordinary but certainly does not sustain the argument that social conditioning is a falsehood which suppresses the authenticity of inner feeling.
La Rochefoucauld points to the notion that without the conventions of language and the social shaping of feeling, romantic love,( and by extension, compassion, pique, hatred, loss of face and so forth) would not achieve the power it does in our mental landscape.
Yes, governments, religious organizations, and all human social institutions have unceasingly sought to shape or suppress forms of certain thoughts and feelings and cultivate others; they have made social participation contingent on successful self-repression and cultivation.
But the belief that what is true and genuine can only manifest in the absence of social constraint, habit and convention is itself a social artifact and makes normative a set of circumstances that has never and nowhere existed in human history.
Rather than insist on the primacy of one or the other of these poles, it seems that searching to uncover, much less express the depth of our humanity requires us to recognize both extremes and to search in the deep and mysterious uncertainties of the gap between.
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That recognition and searching is why Quignard’s work interests me so much, part of which he labels the Erstwhile, that time before our enslavement by language, conventions, names. When a belief or emotion takes the form of an automatic response, part of that social conditioning, it is a way of ducking the challenge of that search. Novels, Dostoyevsky’s as case in point, are part of that search without which we can never hope to find our humanity.
I like the spaces in the later Quignard, though I’m not so taken with the Hatred Of Music book. And I liked A Terrace in Rome so much that my neighbor and I translated it. (It’s just come out from Wakefield Press.)
Be that as it may, I do not believe that we will ever or can ever “find our humanity”. It’s just not possible to see your own face.
When I think about myself, I don’t think :”I am a human.” And I have no idea who or what I am from that or any other point of view. And I never have except on the most obvious and trivial level. (Time wasted at the analyst’s on that one.) This identity, what’s it good for except the driver’s license, and a certain level of social convenience? Surely it distorts perception and muffles sympathy
But when people find this humanity, define it, then the trouble begins. But then again perhaps it’s an inevitably human trouble, since, really it’s the search that we simply cannot end. Unless of course we resist it with one of those provisional and contingent identities, store-bought usually.
Well, on we go, and thank you so much for your posts.
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Forgive me for forgetting your Quignard connection. I must get back to his work this year.
Your comment returns us to Gide and Dostoevsky. One of the most intriguing parts of Gide’s book is his contention that Dostoevsky’s ‘religious’ ethic was closer to Buddhist than Christian, especially in his belief that our insistence on individuality and endless questing for personal identity stood in the way of happiness and truth.
The pleasure is all mine in writing these posts. Thank you so much for reading and conversation.
At the risk pf being a pest, here’s an interest review on the latest available work by Quignard.
Thank you very much. I cannot wait for the day when the whole series of Le Dernier Royaume is translated and I can read end to end. Also very much looking forward to your translation.
Thanks again, Douglas. Your comments and links are very much welcome, no risk of being a pest.