La Belle Époque

At werk
At work…

Reading Celine’s novel, Death On The Installment Plan, concurrently with Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals Of Thought, people in my life show up as characters in a story, like a compound prescription: insight plus character precipitates understanding, add another chemical reveals how that understanding shapes my current views.

Conclusions I’m reaching don’t makes sense to colleagues. I have to explain things and as they listen to their own thinking, through their  own systems of belief and my ideas and values don’t fit the shape of the world that emerged from the chrysalis of their youth as they sought to know a world that seemed somewhat dangerous. To distrust my intellect is scary; to disguise my desire seems safer;  denying experience is crucial to avoid discovery and  it’s profitable to play by rules regardless of logic or morality. Last month, I read Celine and his latter day disciples, Fante and Bukowski, describing the muck of Euro-American civilization that results from rationalizing hegemonic cultures and the real purpose of capitalism, not as greed, but because it creates a hierarchy of caste of infinite gradation from the dung beetle to the dung matriarch. (Their characters reminded me of patients I filmed in a San Juan mental hospital for a documentary about Puerto Rico.) 

Wealthy classes assuage their pain with status symbols, drugs and psychoanalysis. Celine and Bukowski describe some of the agony of those of lesser means. For the middle class, there is Landmark’s Forum and it’s processor, the est training.

In the est training, in 1979, it was interesting see how others views of the world, beginning in early childhood, relate to their views of others and of themselves, rather than to the reality. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see their emotions about these filtered views: the interpretive processes behind them that emerged from decisions they made as toddlers when confronted with a unpredictable world. We couldn’t examine emotions that color our perceptions, perhaps, there was no way to monetize such an inquiry and est was a business. Nor, could we examine the goals and beliefs that gave rise to these emotions. This particular inquiry requires a philosophical context that is better informed so we examine the psychology of decisions we would continue to live with but at least we were able to see that we do have filters that guide every choice we make and  justify actions that are in consistent with the ethical stands we profess and we were thereafter conscious that even though we’re relating to others, we’re not connecting with them. It was freeing and unsettling to see this disparity, especially when those with whom we’ve not authentically connected are important to us;  spouses, children, lovers, parents, co-workers, siblings… Becoming aware of this inability to be authentic created opportunities to sell more programs to est graduates but it also had the effect of gracing some ignorance with humility. It’s better than nothing.

If we know that we fabricate our views of the world and ourselves, logically, we should able to improve the quality of our relationships by incorporating practices that keep us within ethical boundaries and help us to self-regulate expression and est graduates spoke of this as “taking responsibility” (for the quality of their relationships). But these practices don’t address the cause of inauthenticity, they simply try to manage the effects of it. When emotions tell you that a situation is threatening, you can pretend that your desire is impractical but the desire and the emotion remain. Those desires, however, are related to your most important goals and projects, and your identity.

In Upheavals of Thought, Martha Nussbaum clarifies the issues I’ve raised about the fact that emotional cognitions rule your experience  by inquiring into the nature of emotion, developing her thesis from her reviews of 2600 years of rigorous thinking from ancient Greece, before Aristotle, through Chryssipus, forward in time through the history of western and eastern culture. She also cites current studies in psychology, sociology, psychiatry, literature, music and neuroscience. Her principle thesis is inspired by the writing of  Marcel Proust, whose artist-aristocrat’s experience of Paris in the Belle Époque is far from Celine’s “experience of this same period, of those for whom life wasn’t belle Nussbaum’s theory is that emotions are cognitive/evaluative responses and that by understanding your emotions, you are able to negotiate them.