Posted by: gcarkner | October 28, 2014

Recentering the Self

Loss of Center: the Shifty Identity of Nihilism

In a recent viewing of the PBS film Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen, one is reminded of the struggle of the young, highly educated woman struggling for her identity. First she is imprisoned in the Tower of London by her Catholic half-sister who has married Philip of Spain and wants to turn England back to the Catholic faith. This is a bloody time of burning Protestant leaders such as Ridley, Cranmer and Latimer at the stake. You can stand on the spot where it happened in the Broad Street in the heart of Oxford. Elizabeth is accused of conspiracy. This experience in prison helps shape her; she endures humiliation with strength and dignity even though she is King Henry VIII’s daughter (from Anne Boleyn).

Then her half-sister dies suddenly and she is thrust into the royal court to become sovereign of the country. The power struggles begin with her counsellors and advisors and several plots to assassinate her and take over the country. The counsellors want a strategic marriage as quickly as possible, in order to consolidate their power  as much as hers. Her other sister, Mary Queen of Scots, is also a threat, so she must be imprisoned in Dublin Castle. She both loves and fears Mary. Her big decision is to remain single, the virgin queen, and “have no man rule over me”. She manages to consolidate her power and fight off the Spanish Armada and rule for a full lengthy forty years. In all of this, she must find her true centre; she can ill afford to waffle; she needs trusted advisors who will speak truth to power. She has to know who she is and what virtues she stands for, if she is to lead her country, serve it well and defend herself from several plots and conspiracies. It is a time of both chivalry and treachery, honour and manipulation. She leaves a legacy, lives large, and wins the hearts of her subjects, establishing Elizabethan England for posterity.

Fast forward to the contrast of the late twentieth century. The experience of “multi-phrenia” (the individual is split into a multiplicity of self-investments) as identified by sociologist Kenneth Gergen. The late modern person has many selves based on multiple roles and performances, multiple texts and sub-texts. The self has fractured and changes with the social environment as per the Woody Allen movie “Zelig”. In some sense, the self is collapsed into a functionalism. Costume and carnival are part of this late modern self, the performing self with its “Multiple Personality Disorder”. Goffman uses the analogy of self as a theater where actors present performances for various audiences who co-operate in maintaining an agreed definition of the play. One can somehow live out a series of incoherent postures. Self-parody and irony sets in–the inability to take oneself seriously. Some of these roles may be imposed by society; others are chosen for advantage of advancement.

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The individual is a consumer of images, experiences, and identities as a source of ideas for self-reconstruction (Walsh and Middleton). Thus there is a loss of center and a lack of depth to character, a living on the surface of life. Christopher Lasch notes that the sense of personal identity has become “uncertain and problematic not because people no longer occupy fixed social stations… but because they no longer [believe they] inhabit a world that exists independently of themselves” (C. Lash, Minimal Self, p. 32). The actress/singer Madonna is a classic example, working images to suit her goals of the moment. Who is she really? Indeed, who are we late moderns with our YouTube Selfies? Are we lost in a sea of masks?

Christian intellectual Os Guinness, in describing the features of late modernity, writes of  “a rejection of an identifiable self for shifting sets of relationships, content for style, truth and meaning for impressions, beliefs for games, ethical rules for social role-playing, commitment for disposal consciousness and irony, vocation for strategies of manipulation, enduringness for disposability, originality for reproducibility and recycling, consistency and continuity for the spliced, blurred, the self-consciously created pastiche of forms and moods” (O. Guinness, The American Hour, p. 129). It is a thin, constructed and reconstructed self that does not have a centre, displaying the nihilism of a self-trivialized identity. Some might say that it is in crisis; others might say that it is radically free. What is the hope for this condition? Can Elizabeth I help us in some way?

New York history professor Joseph Loconte’s talk in the C.S. Lewis Oxbridge Summer Institute Series made available for free listening, notes that after World War I, Lewis and Tolkein made a hard decision not to join the disillusionment, cynicism and nihilism of their post-war age, where many intellectuals were writing about the end of civilization itself. They sought to recover in their writing (Narnia Chrinicles and Lord of the Rings) something of the medieval tradition of the great heroic epic quest, and to reinvent it for the modern mind. Their work has had a huge counter-cultural influence; it is subversive of cynicism and nihilism. They wanted to maintain “realism but without resignation” regarding the human struggle of good and evil, the vital importance of friendship, the beauty of sacrifice, to point to a source of grace and goodness, the possibility of the eucatastrophe (redemptive rescue), to reconnect with the deep magic in the heart of the world. It is the return of the king, the epic story of sacrifice and courage, a union of tenderness and severity, terror and comfort, the Lion and the lamb. Perhaps Lewis and Tolkein can help us find a centre for the self, help us pull our many selves together, in late modernity. This is the theme of a new book to be released in 2015: “A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18” (Harper Collins, 2015)

2014 marks the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I, the conflict that introduced industrial-scale carnage to the world. Never before had science and technology—the mortars, machine guns, tanks, barbed wire and poison gas—conspired so effectively to destroy humans and nature. The Great War savaged popular beliefs about progress, morality and religion. Yet for two extraordinary authors and friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the war deepened their moral and spiritual convictions. Both fought in the trenches on the Western Front and used their experiences to shape their Christian imagination. The pair met in 1926 as young scholars at Oxford University and went on to produce epic stories of heroism. Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Lewis earned fame for “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a series of children’s books now considered classics. Their tales are fundamentally about a cosmic struggle between good and evil—a theme radically out of step with the cynical and fatalistic spirit of their age. The authors’ use of fantasy is often dismissed as an attempt to forget the wretched realities of postwar Europe. But a careful reading reveals a steely realism that captures the human predicament. Even the most heroic figures feel like modern characters: uncertain, filled with fear and prone to the lust for power. (Joseph Loconte, Professor of History, The King’s College, NYC)

~ Gordon Carkner, PhD Philosophy of the Self

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