13 January 2011

Life as literature

This is the title of a book by Alexander Nehamas. He is a philosophy professor and his book is a study of some of the writings of Nietzsche, with a theme that literary criticism is a handy set of tools to examine all of human life. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is not too big. The simile is a little off though, and it works much better in the other direction. A novel can put you inside the mind of another (fictional) person in a way that no psychological monograph ever can. Walter Kauffman presented this idea in his book Critique of Religion and Philosophy in a short discussion of Tolstoy and Napoleon and Tolstoy's character Natasha. If the ghost of Napoleon were brought to modern earth and set down in the library with a dozen of his biographies, he would read them from beginning to end and say, smugly, "Ah! My secret is safe." If the ghost of the person who inspired Tolstoy's character were brought to modern earth (assuming there was a single person who inspired Tolstoy's invention) and set down in the library with War and Peace, she would erupt in tears and cry, "Oh my God! They knew!"

A number of psychologists have put this idea to work. Carl Jung famously asked the question "what myth am I living by?" In his case it turned out to be the Tower of Babel and he occupied himself in his retirement using stones to build a house and a tower and monuments and other things. It was his childhood occupation--building models out of small stones; and in his old age he assumed it as a calling. His student Joseph Campbell went further with the idea and liked to describe us as beings who tell stories, that we are little more than the stories which we tell. This is a similar small error to the one Nehamas makes. The stories are important, but we contain the stories; it is not the stories which contain us.

Without going overboard, I endorse the value of story telling. Not long ago I did some work with the career manual "What color is your parachute?" This is one of the most popular books for people in job transition such as myself. A large fraction of the book is devoted to introspection for the person in transition to make choices which are consistent with who they are. The tool is story telling. The author poses question prompts and the stories which the reader provides are supposed to be clues for making good career choices. I went through this part of the book very quickly, because I had independently done a very similar task a couple years ago, and I still had my worksheets handy near the top of the ugly stack of papers on my desk.

The version I used was by Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox: Your Mythic Journey. This is only 129 pages, but I easily used all my spare time in three weeks working through the exercises and I gave up before I had finished them all. The authors ask the reader a sequence of simple questions:

Who was your first hero?

What was your first well-done job you took pride in?

What was your heaven ideal?

And villains and disappointments and hell etc.

I don't have the actual worksheets any longer. I cooked them down to their essence and they are now five dense pages, dated 17 February 2008. They are amongst the most valuable, sensible, and unambiguous notes I own. To me, they make a compelling story. I really doubt anybody else would find them interesting. They are a part of my life, but I do not consider my life to be literature.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.