What is Romanticism?

Dissatisfied with abstractions, Isaiah Berlin leans into the particulars.

“Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, life, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence, the maladi de siecle, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the Dance of Death, indeed Death itself. It is Shelley’s dome of many-coloured glass, and it is also his white radiance of eternity. It is the confused teeming fullness and richness of life, Fulle des Lebens, inexhaustible multiplicity, turbulence, violence, conflict, chaos, but also it is peace, oneness with the great ‘I Am’, harmony with the natural order, the music of the spheres, dissolution in the eternal all-containing spirit. It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, the mysterious, the supernatural, ruins, moonlight, enchanted castles, hunting horns, elves, giants, griffins, falling water, the old mill on the Floss, darkness and the powers of darkness, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, unutterable. Also it is the familiar, the sense of one’s unique tradition, joy in the smiling aspect of everyday nature, and the accustomed sights and sounds of contended, simple, rural folk—the sane and happy wisdom of rosy-cheeked sons of the soil. It is the ancient, the historic, it is Gothic cathedrals, mists of antiquity, ancient roots and the old order with its unanalysable qualities, its profound but inexpressible loyalties, the impalpable, the imponderable. Also it is the pursuit of novelty, revolutionary change, concern with the fleeting present, desire to live in the moment, rejection of knowledge, past and future, the pastoral idyll of happy innocence, joy in the passing instant, a sense of timelessness. It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy, solitude, the sufferings of exile, the sense of alienation, roaming in remote places, especially the East, and in remote times, especially the Middle Ages. But also it is happy co-operation in a common creative effort, the sense of forming part of a Church, a class, a party, a tradition, a great and all-containing symmetrical hierarchy, knights and retainers, the ranks of the Church, organic social ties, mystic unity, one faith, one land, one blood, ‘la terre et les morts’, as Barres said, the great society of the dead and the living and the yet unbnorn. It is the Toryism of the Scott and Southey and Wordsworth, and it is the radicalism of Shelley Buchner and Stendhal. It is Chateaubriand’s aesthetic medievalism, and it is Michelet’s loathing of the Middle Ages. It is Carlyle’s worship of authority, and Hugo’s hatred of authority. It is extreme nature mysticism, and extreme anti-naturalist aestheticism. It is energy, force, will, youth, life, etalage du moi; it is also self-torture, self-annihilation, suicide. It is the primitive, the unsophisticated, the bosom of nature, green fields, cow-bells, murmuring brooks, the infinite blue sky. No less, however ,t is also dandyism, the desire to dress up, red waistcoats, green wigs, blue hair, which the followers of people like Gerard de Nerval wore in Paris in a certain period. It is the lobster which Nerval led about on a string in the streets of Paris. It is wild exhibitionism, eccentricity, it is the battle of Eernani. It is ennui, it is taedium vitae, it is the death of Sardanopolis, whether painted by Delacroix, or written about by Berlioz or Byron. It is the convulsion of great empires, wars, slaughter and the crashing of worlds. It is the romantic hero—the rebel, l’homme fatale, the damned soul, the Corsairs, Manfreds, Gaours, Laras, Cains, all the population of Byron’s heroic poems. It is Melmoth, it is Jean Sbogar, all the outcasts and Ishmaels as well as the golden-hearted courtesans and the noble-hearted convicts of nineteenth-century fiction. It is drinking out of the human skull, it is Berlioz who said he wanted to climb Vesuvius in order to commune with a kindred soul. It is Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes, but also Blake’s vision of God and his angels, the great Christian society, the eternal order, the ‘starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and ternal of the Christian soul’. It is, in short, unity and multiplicity. It is fidelity to the particular, in the paintings of nature for example, and also mysterious tantalising vagueness of outline. It is beauty and ugliness. It is art for art’s sake, and art as an instrument of social salvation. It is strength and weakness, individualism and collectivism, purity and corruption, revolution and reaction, peace and war, love of life and love of death.”

From a book of his lectures, The Roots of Romanticism

Szazs, Hysteria, “Mental Illness”

From Thomas Szasz “The Myth of Mental Illness,” pp. 145-147:

“I submit that hysteria—meaning communications by means of complaints about the body and bodily signs—constitutes a special form of sign-using behavior. This idiom has a twofold origin: first, the human body—subject to disease and disability, manifested by means of bodily signs (for example, paralysis, convulsions, etc.) and bodily feelings (for example, pain, fatigue, etc.); second, culture and society—in particular the seemingly universal custom of making life easier, at least temporarily, for those who are ill. These two basic factors account for the development and use of the special language of hysteria—which is nothing other than the “language of illness.” People use this language because they have not learned any other, or because it is especially useful for them in their situation.

The implications of viewing and treating hysteria—and mental disorders generally—as confronting us with problems like those presented by persons speaking foreign languages rather than like those presented by persons suffering from bodily diseases are briefly as follows. We think and speak of diseases as having “causes,” “treatment,” and “cures.” However, if a person speaks a language other than our own, we do not look for the “cause” of his peculiar linguistic behavior. It would be foolish—and fruitless—to search for the “etiology” of speaking French. To understand such behavior, we must think in terms of learning and meaning. Accordingly, we might conclude that speaking French is the result of living among people who speak French.

It follows, then, that if hysteria is an idiom rather than an illness, it is senseless to inquire into its “causes.” As with language, we shall be able to ask only how hysteria was learned and what it means. It also follows that we cannot meaningfully talk about the “treatment” of hysteria. Although it is obvious that under certain circumstances it may be desirable for a person to change from one language to another—for example, to discontinue speaking French and begin speaking English—we do not call this change a “cure.” Thus, speaking in terms of learning rather than in terms of etiology permits one to acknowledge that among a diversity of communicative forms each has its own raison d’etre, and that, because of the particular circumstances of the communicants, each may be as “valid” as any other.

Finally, while in treating a disease, the physician does something to a patient, in teaching a language the instructor helps the student do something for himself. One may get cured of a disease, but one must learn a (foreign) language. The perennial frustration of psychiatrists and psychotherapists thus comes down to the simple fact that they often try to teach new languages to persons who have not the least interesting in learning them. When his patients refused to profit from his “interpretations,” Freud declared them to be “resistant” to “treatment.” But when immigrants refuse to speak the language of the country in which they live and stick to their old habits of speech, we understand their behavior without recourse to such mysterious pseudomedical explanations.”

This passage, about halfway through Szasz’ book on mental diagnoses, is a good summary of where the friction is between him and other psychiatrists. As I reach about the halfway mark, I want to make a couple of notes.

First, for someone who is just walking in on Szasz ideas, some context is helpful. Szasz wrote this book throughout the 1950s when mental illness had a far different status in society; a whiff of shizophrenia could get detained in a state hospital in rather abysmal conditions. Szasz’ distress and urgency was born from the fact that agency was being denied to people with the justification that something was controlling them, an illness, which in truth was not an illness in the way we conceive of it.

As I read the book, I gather that Szasz was so put off by the history, practice, and effects of contemporary psychiatry that he didn’t really know where to start in criticizing it. What then, does he have to offer us, that isn’t born from a reactionary frustration? The one value-laden thread throughout the book seems to be: agency.

‘Mental illness’ began as a metaphor, due to the fact that people with complaints but no physical symptoms began showing up at the doors of physicians. Over time, when the notion of the metaphor was lost, assumptions typically saved for physical illnesses started to creep into the concept. The result of this is treating clients presenting with non-physical symptoms as being just as uninvolved in the outcome of their conditions as clients presenting with physical symptoms.

Seeing a psychiatrist with this presumption, a client will leave without a sense of their own storied involvement in what is currently their primary concern. The question we should immediately ask is, well are they involved in their conditions? What part do they play, if any?

The answers to this question will quickly adumbrate a person’s view about what human beings are. The original model for diagnoses—and the reason for using words like “diagnosis” and “symptom” in the first place—is bequeathed from the efforts of a class of late 19th century men who saw in science the ability to totally describe the world. It was natural that any sort of nonphysical symptom would be assumed to have its origin in a physical malady, and that this could be treated same as any other illness.

Things become messy, unruly, and unscientific, it seems, if we open up the idea that there is two-way interaction here, not just from the physical to the nonphysical but vice versa as well. My minimal position, which sets me opposite early diagnosticians, is that there is some level of back and forth interaction between the two. A person like me is thus somewhat caught in a conundrum: the word “diagnosis” is bequeathed to us from an inadequate worldview, but remains stuck in the baggage of the old worldview like dried syrup. The issue is that the phenomenon to be addressed has real, persistent, physical elements which are captured by the word “diagnosis.” If one wants to see a phenomenon in a new way, one often has to rename it; but our current language seems so far inadequate.

As I thought about this issue of interaction, I read this passage from Carl Jung, who descried our desire to divide and conquer the person, as it were, because of how messy things get otherwise.

“The distinction between mind and body is an artificial dichotomy, a discrimination which is unquestionably based far more on the peculiarity of intellectual understanding than on the nature of things. In fact, so intimate is the intermingling of bodily and psychic traits that not only can we draw far-reaching inferences as to the constitution of the psyche from the constitution of the body, but we can also infer from the psychic peculiarities the corresponding bodily characteristics. It is true that the latter process is more difficult; but this is surely not because there is a greater influence of the body over the mind than vice versa, but for quite another reason. In taking the mind as our starting-point we work our way from the relatively unknown to the known; while in the opposite case we have the advantage of starting from something known, that is, from the visible body. Despite all the psychology we think we possess today, the psyche is still infinitely more obscure to us than the visible surface of the body. The psyche is still a foreign, almost unexplored country of which we have only indirect knowledge; it is mediated by conscious functions that are subject to almost endless possibilities of deception.”

Carl Jung, “A Theory of Types”

As is fitting for where things stand, I will leave things in a mess for now. Rather than rejecting old paradigms, I would simply say that they are inadequate, and we are still looking for language to describe what is going on in the tide of mental health concerns arising today. I want to explore Szazs alternative metaphor of language, but I will leave that to another post.

Decoding the Gurus Episode 1: A Review

This is a sketch of thoughts on a podcast by anthropologist Chris Kavanaugh and psychologist Matt Brown as they discuss the curious case of Brett Weinstein, a disenfranchised biologist who has claimed an established scientist poached a hypothesis of his on the way to winning the Nobel prize.

Main strength:

As academics Matt and Chris provide valuable context concerning the publishing process and the general expectations surrounding scientific research. Because the story essentially centers on scholars and their relationship to publishing, the story is greatly illuminated. We are given two token careers against which to compare Brett’s expectations and prospects as a career scientist.

Their accents are also rip-roaring fun to someone without a fully rounded cosmopolitan experience.

Main weaknesss:

The first and most important principle of academic engagement is to make your opponent’s position as strong as it can possibly be. Make it even stronger than they made it, and engage it only when it has been spelled out on its own terms.

It was only with great patience and disappointment that I found the first hour of this podcast to concern only the low view the hosts had of the Weinsteins’ character. They are called self-aggrandizing gurus, prone to fallacious and conspiratorial thinking – with giggles and sporadic contempt for them sprinkled in – before Brett’s story is even explained. The first hour gave the podcast a frame of the contempt of a peer more than that of a dispassionate critique.

This framework prevented much of anything from being achieved. In places where interesting shades of nuance or details rich with meaning could be explored, the Weinsteins are instead presumed to be out-of-touch exaggerators projecting their victim complexes on the world. For people without the contempt of a peer, this is deeply unsatisfying.

What is going on: Paradigms and Personalities

This lack of satisfaction stems mostly from a sharp sense that different paradigms are at work between these discussions. The paradigms are essentially conservative and liberal: a conservative believes trust in a system pays off through hard work; a liberal sees that the system is filled with people who game others for their own advancement. A conservative accepts the imperfections of reality in order to achieve something real, while a liberal keeps their vision of the ideal in order to transform imperfect systems out of the stupor of the status quo. These people have different roles to play and different temperaments when approaching the same set of facts. As ‘publishing grinders’ Chris and Matt essentially live in the conservative viewpoint that only application to the system and hard work merit celebration.

These temperamental differences seem off the radar of the hosts, which ultimately made it a disappointment. If the same story could have been dissected without the constant reference to the Weinsteins’ egos – as if normal scientists do not have egos at play – it would have been a more enriching experience.

Men and Women

A few months ago I finished reading a pretty big book, and this is the passage that seems to have stuck with me. The book, The Closing of the American Mind, you could say is primarily about the onset of individualism in American culture. Allan Bloom seems sad that and old wisdom has ceased its trickle into modern generations because there is no understanding of a whole for young people to receive. What used to be whole has frayed, and is now populated only by individuals and their desires. You can see that sort of theme in the following passage about what modesty was important for signifying.

 

“Modesty in the old dispensation was the female virtue, because it governed the powerful desire that related men to women, providing a gratification in harmony with the procreation and rearing of children, the risk and responsibility of which fell naturally—that is, biologically—on women. Although modesty impeded sexual intercourse, its result was to make such gratification central to a serious life and to enhance the delicate interplay between the sexes, which makes acquiescence of the will as important as possession of the body. Diminution or suppression of modesty certainly makes attaining the end of desire easier—which was the intention of the sexual revolution—but it also dismantles the structure of involvement and attachment, reducing sex to the thing-in-itself…

Female modesty extends sexual differentiation from the sexual act to the whole of life. It makes men and women always men and women. The consciousness of directedness toward one another, and its attractions and inhibitions, inform every common deed. As long as modesty operates, men and women together are never just lawyers or pilots together. They have something else, always potentially very important, in common—ultimate ends, or as they say, “life goals.” Is winning this case or landing this plan what is most important, or is it love and family? As lawyers or pilots, men and women are the same, subservient to the one goal. As lovers or parents they are very different, but inwardly related by sharing the naturally given end of continuing the species. Yet their working together immediately poses the questions of “roles” and, hence, “priorities,” in a way that men working together or women working together does not. Modesty is a constant reminder of their peculiar relatedness and its outer forms and inner sentiments, which impede the self’s free creation or capitalism’s technical division of labor. It is a voice constant repeating that a man and a woman have work to do together that is far different from that found in the marketplace, and of a far greater importance.”

 

There are moments in time, when a man is acting some way or a woman is acting some way, where I feel suddenly nostalgic for a period in history I have never occupied. It’s a nostalgia, I take it, for men and women. Some action will fit an old mold, something that used to have this old signifying power, a man signaling to a woman, with inwardness, ‘I’m over here,’ or a woman signaling to a man, subtly, ‘Here I am, a woman.’ Perhaps it’s a trace of what Bloom here calls a voice.

Geography of the Sacred

“Such a cosmic pillar can be only at the very center of the universe, for the whole of the habitable world extends around it. Here, then, we have a sequence of religious conceptions and cosmological images that are inseparably connected and form a system that may be called the “system of the world” prevalent in traditional societies: (a)a sacred place constitutes a break in the homogeneity of space; (b) this break is symbolized by an opening by which passage from one cosmic region to another is made possible (from heaven to earth and vice versa; from earth to the underworld); (c) communication with heaven is expressed by one or another of certain images, all of which refer to the axis mundi: pillar (cf. the universalis columna), ladder (cf. Jacob’s ladder), mountain, tree, vine, etc.; (d) around this cosmic axis lies the world (=our world), hence the axis is located “in the middle,” at the “navel of the earth”; it is the Center of the World.

…Since the sacred mountain is an axis mundi connecting earth with heaven, it in a sense touches heaven and hence marks the highest point in the world; consequently the territory that surrounds it, and that constitutes “our world,” is held to be the highest among countries. This is stated in Hebrew tradition: Palestine, being the highest land, was not submerged by the Flood. According to Islamic tradition, the highest place on earth is the ka’aba, because “the Pole Star bears witness that it faces the center of Heaven.” For Christians, it is Golgotha that is on the summit of the cosmic mountain. All these beliefs express the same feeling, which is profoundly religious: “our world” is holy ground because it is the place nearest to heaven, because from here, from our abode, it is possible to reach heaven; hence our world is a high place. In cosmological terms, this religious conception is expressed by the projection of the favored territory which is “ours” onto the summit of the cosmic mountain. Later speculation drew all sorts of conclusions—for example, the one just cited for Palestine, that the Holy Land was not submerged by the Flood.”

-Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

Eliade seems to directly explain many of the concepts he cares about, yet he is also always spinning them out with new words, phrases, and examples. His writing and thinking would be impossible to imitate, for he represents a very dear and persistent love for his subject matter.

What he writes about the consecration of sacred space with a place or a symbol re-orients the discussion of the religious onto a different plane that we normally assume. By switching to a discussion of ‘doors to the transcendent’ (my phrase characterizing his new plane) religions now show immense commonality, as well as decided differences. But the differences have changed from propositional contradiction to the gathering around of separate doors, believing one’s door is the closest ‘to heaven.’

While reading this I thought about what I was taught about the Flood when I was young, in the 90s and 2000s, and how I looked at websites discussing whether it was a regional or global flood. Historically this represents different traditions coming into tension with one another, and the primacy of scientific reasoning in sorting out the world. What is lost, except in perhaps the earliest of a child’s days, is that the rescue from the Flood represented the blessing of God for those who were faithful, which shows that faith is in some sense its own “Center of the World”, that which invisibly steers the visible world on, whatever obstacle may come up against those who would attempt to live within it.

That oldest of ideas

“The best defenses against the terrors of existence are the homely comforts of love, work, and family life, which connect us to a world that is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs. It is through love and work, as Freud noted in a characteristically pungent remark, that we exchange crippling emotional conflict for ordinary unhappiness. Love and work enable each of us to explore a small corner of the world and to come to accept it on its own terms. But our society tends either to devalue small comforts or else to expect too much of them. Our standards of ‘creative, meaningful work’ are too exalted to survive disappointment. Our ideal of ‘true romance’ puts an impossible burden on personal relationships. We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves.”

This is the penultimate paragraph from The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. It is a book with many illuminating paragraphs but most of them are dour and gloomy, while this one stands out like the diamond in the coal mine. His idea of narcissism is more idiosyncratic than colloquial: by it he means an inability, established usually in infancy, to accept that one is limited in the ability to achieve their desires. Many facets of society are tailored to feeding this overblown self, which essentially is a wish to be something that you are not. I recommend it especially for its analysis of the ‘managerial class’ and the growing gender conflicts of the 1970s, but he’s a very apocalyptic thinker and his frustration can grow like kudzu vines over everything.

I hope to be posting in here more often. I’m having a good day.

Kierkegaard on Reasons and Conviction

“Off with all this world history and reasons and proofs of the truth of Christianity: there’s just one proof – that of faith. If I truly have a firm conviction (which we know is an intense inner determination in the direction of spirit), my conviction is for me always stronger than reasons: really it is conviction that sustains the reasons and the converse. In that respect the exponent of the aesthetic life-view in Either/Or was to some extent right when, in one of the Dipsalmata, he said that reasons are odd: when I lack passion I look down on reasons; when I have passion reasons assume enormous proportions. What he is talking about, and what he calls passion, si the impassioned, the inward, which is just what a firm conviction is. A rooster can no more lay eggs – at most a wind-egg – than ‘reasons’ can give birth to a conviction, however long their intercourse. Conviction arises elsewhere. That is what I meant somewhere (in connection with some problems written on a sheet of paper pasted on a piece of cardboard) by the problem of the difference between a pathos-filled and a dialectical transition.

It is impossible, therefore, for someone to keep his conviction in the background and bring his reasons to the fore. No, one’s conviction, or the fact that it is one’s conviction, my, your (personal) conviction is decisive. One can joke a bit about reasons. ‘Well, if you insist on reasons, I can oblige. How many do you want? Three, five, seven?’ But there is nothing higher I can say than ‘I believe’. This is the positive saturaion point, just as when a lover says, ‘She is the one I love’, and doesn’t go on about it and say how much more he loves her than others love their beloveds, or talk of his reasons for loving her.
In other words, conviction must lead the way, and personality along with it. Reasons are reduced to the ranks, and that, again, is the opposite of all modern objectivity.

My, or anyone’s, development goes as follows. He might begin with a few reasons, but they are the lower plane. Then he chooses, under the weight of responsibility before God a conviction is born in him with God’s help. He is now in the positive position. From then on he cannot defend his conviction or prove it by reasons, since reasons belong to the lower plane. No, the matter has now become more fully personal, or a matter of the personality, that is, one can only defend one’s conviction ethically, personally – i.e. by the sacrifices one is willing to make for it, the fearlessness with which one maintains it.
There is only one proof of the truth of Christianity: the inner proof, argumentum spiritus sancti.

This is hinted at in 1 John 5:9: ‘If we receive the witness of men’ (all the historical proofs and consideration) ‘the witness of God is greater’ – that is, the inward testimony is greater. And then in verse 10: ‘He that believeth in the Son of God hath the witness in himself’.

It is not the reasons that motivate belief in the son of God, but conversely – faith in God’s son is the testimony. It is the movement of infinity-in-itself and cannot be otherwise. Reasons do not motivate the conviction, the conviction motivates the reasons. Everything prior is preparatory, preliminary, something that vanishes as soon as conviction appears and transforms everything or turns the relation around. Otherwise there would be no resting in a conviction, having a conviction would be a constant rehearsal of the reasons. Resting, the absolute resting, in a conviction in faith is simply that faith itself is the testimony, faith is what gives grounds.”

Journals, 1849

 

 

One is always tempted while reading Kierkegaard of writing him off as a raving religious lunatic. Most passages of his give you that out. Another way of reading him is that he saw, fundamentally, what most studies in psychology seem to take laborious amounts of time to prove. Here he talks about how human beings view proofs. You can tell the difference between him and an Enlightenment thinker because where he sees the greatness of a human, they see only an irrationality.

Two Theories of Theory

A good passage from Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic) on the different goals of theory in history:

 

“There are two theories of theory. The first, and earlier, asserts that theory is the way in which “what ought to be” establishes its hegemony over “what is.” Value and truth are inseparable; thus is content specified, a fact put in its place. Theory is the reflecting mirror of man’s mind, catching glimpses of an order eternally right and good. In this first tradition of our culture, which continued unbroken until the time of Francis Bacon, there could be disagreement on the means of bringing mankind to conform to the eternal and stable order of things as they really are, but not on the ends. Things being what we know them to be, the intellectual and emotional task of life is to make our actions conform to the right order, so that we too can be right. Theoretical knowledge is therefore of the good; the ideal is therefore most real, the model from which the is-ness of things, in their splendid variety, derives. Theory is the way of understanding the ideal. In this theory of theory, knowledge finally emerges, at its highest level, as faith; the best life is that of true obedience. God is the final object of all classical theorizing; to contemplate God in the unity above all the variety manifested in His natural and social orders (or moral commandments), was the highest good.

But there is a second theory of theory, one that arose both as a response to the death of the gods and also as a weapon for killing off those surviving, somehow, in our moral unconscious and cultural conscience. In this second and more recent tradition of theorizing, theory arms us with the weapons for transforming reality instead of forcing us to conform to it. The transformative cast of theorizing, unlike the conformative cast, is silent about ultimate ends. In the absence of new about a stable and governing order anywhere, theory becomes actively concerned with mitigating the daily miseries of living rather than with a therapy of commitment to some healing doctrine of the universe. In fact, the universe is neither accepted nor rejected; it is mere there for our use. In the second tradition, theory at its highest reach is not faith but, rather, power. Good theory becomes the creator of power. And from that creation of power derives man’s freedom to choose among the options specific by the reach of potential powers laid down in the theory.”

 

Interesting his mention of Francis Bacon. There’s something about the divorce between science and theology, where enough time of these categories spent in non-interacting spheres meant that theory itself became something wild and untamed thing in man, divorced from the mythic beginning or ending of the soul of the human. Science seems to be about control; ‘The Quest of Science.’ Yet it may that moment of division, historical and psychological, that unleashed a wild, fearful impulse toward modern political man’s flip selves of self-protection and aggression.

Simone Weil: Distance and Love

Weil writes here on the paradox of distance and closeness, how space and time interact with our desires for togetherness. The real distance of love seems to be not space, but pain; longing for the world to represent a union. Yet distance we feel because of pain also seems to culminate our longing for each other; it seems, even in this suffering of distance, there is some irremovable aspect of love, an aspect that could not otherwise be expressed.

“God produces himself and knows himself perfectly, just as we in our miserable fashion make and know objects outside ourselves. But, before all things, God is love. Before all things God loves himself. This love, this friendship of God, is the Trinity. Between the terms united by this relation of divine love there is more than nearness; there is infinite nearness or identity. But, resulting from the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Passion, there is also infinite distance. The totality of space and the totality of time, interposing their immensity, put an infinite distance between God and God.

Lovers or friends desire two things. The one is to love each other so much that they enter into each other and only make on being. The other is to love each other so much that, with half the globe between them, their union will not be diminished in the slightest degree. All that man vainly desires here below is perfectly realized in God. We have all those impossible desires with us as a mark of our destination, and they are good for us when we no longer hope to accomplish them.

The love between God and God, which in itself is God, is this bond of double virtue: the bond that unites two beings so closely that they are no longer distinguishable and really form a single unity and the bond that stretches across distance and triumphs over infinite separation. The unity of God, wherein all plurality disappears, and the abandonment, wherein Chris believes he is left while never ceasing to love his Father perfectly, these are two forms expressing the divine virtue of the same Love, the Love that is God himself.

God is so essentially love that the unity, which in a sense is his actual definition, is the pure effect of love. Moreover, corresponding to the infinite virtue of unification belonging to this love, there is the infinite separation over which it triumphs, which is the whole creation spread throughout the totality of space and time, made of mechanically harsh matter and interposed between Christ and his Father.”

Victor Frankl on Existential Attitudes

This is one of the best distillations of what Victor Frankl, a psychologist, took from what it took to survive a concentration camp. The task was as much about forming the proper attitude toward the task as the task itself, which is something I hope to write about in coming weeks.

‘As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all pscyhotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed as a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those where being questioned by life—daily, and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem by the situation at hand.’