THEOSOPHY, Vol. 52, No. 7, May, 1964
(Pages 203-206; Size: 11K)

YOUTH FORUM

[Article number (19) in this Q&A Department]

People have a tendency, as they become more and more caught up in the complexity of daily affairs, to become numbed and confused by life and to regard it merely as a senseless newsreel or a jumbled dream. As a result, when they hear such exhortations as "Man know thyself," it is likely that frustration will be only heightened because they feel unable to extricate themselves from the dream they are part of; one may in fact doubt whether a man can ever know himself deeply since such knowledge, to be complete, would seem to imply separation of one's self from one's self, and surely that is impossible. After all, how can a part of something see itself clearly, or understand its context in relation to the whole? Can that much glorified faculty of "self-awareness" really give greater depth and explicitness to our presently vague sense that "I am myself"? Is it really possible, in other words, ever to awaken from the dream?

It becomes possible for a man to wake up from the "dream" and to gain deep insights into his own nature as soon as he becomes truly convinced that, in a sense, he is more than himself. For then the process of self-knowledge is less a matter of separating himself from himself than of joining with the most spiritual and indestructible part of his being. And, since the essence of this elusive part of man is common to all men, it should be possible to see reflections of this common Self in our own deepest intentions and in the lives of every human being whom we contact. That is to say, we may come to know ourselves quite well through constant efforts to understand and feel for others -- for we are they, and all their perversity and all their glory is our own.

Of course, theory is never enough, and often, in spite of everything, we find ourselves frustrated and befuddled by life's seeming nonsequiturs. In the article "Lonely Musings," H. P. Blavatsky suggests that on waking up in the morning we ask ourselves at least three questions: What am I? Why do I work? How do I work? Such a practice is no doubt helpful, but what happens when we find we cannot answer, when we feel no deep affirmative response within ourselves? The feelings of inner abandonment which we may have at such times have been very well expressed by Goethe -- even speaking in a Christian context -- when he makes his character, young Werther, say:

And why should I be ashamed, in the terrible moment when my whole existence is trembling between being and not-being, when the past shines like a flash of lightning over the dark abyss of the future, and everything about me is sinking, and the world going to destruction with me -- Isn't it then the voice of the creature which is being driven back into itself, fails to find a self, and irresistibly tumbles to its fall, that groans from the inner depths of its vainly aspiring powers, "My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?" And should I be ashamed of that saying, should I be afraid of that moment, seeing that he who rolls up the heavens like a robe did not escape it?
We are rather distrustful of absolutes these days, and enjoy making up our own theories of relativity that apply to our morality, the rigor of our mental honesty, the ardor of our search. Few people are willing to face squarely the terrifying question which Goethe presents; few, that is, are willing to take the risks entailed in waking up. And so many of us, perhaps almost all of us, do what we can to perpetuate our dreams. Collectively and individually, we create our world and then live in it, soon forgetting that the particular context which we have created is only one of a number of human possibilities existing on many levels of sophistication, each of which may be valid, and even necessary, but none of which is universal. The world of "show biz," the art world, the business world, the military world -- each of these, and a thousand others, makes it almost impossible for us fully to realize that we live in one world; and which is not merely the summation of all these other worlds but which includes them all, and includes all the worlds of the past from Romanticism to Nazism, and yet remains as a living and unified symbol of the One Reality underlying everything.

But our ability to deceive ourselves is great, and can operate on very subtle layers of our consciousness; in fact, the subtler the more insidious. To take just one example; When Goethe's book, The Sufferings of Young Werther, was first published, a wave of suicides broke out in Europe, and many of the bodies found were dressed like the fictional Werther, in blue coat and yellow waistcoat, and some even had a copy of the book in their pockets. This was a shocking spectacle, not primarily because of the deaths themselves, but because they proved that it is possible for human beings to become so wrapped up in their own romantic dreams that they will throw away their very lives rather than wake up. And truly, there is something about waking up that is even more terrifying than the thought of dying, for it implies enormous responsibility, uncompromising honesty, and an almost martyring love for mankind.

It may be possible to carry this discussion even farther if we allow ourselves to seem to change the subject for a little while, and consider a statement which C. L. Barber makes in a book on Shakespeare:

The artist gives the ritual pattern æsthetic actuality by discovering expressions of it in the fragmentary and incomplete gestures of daily life. He fulfills these gestures by making them moments in the complete action which is the art form. The form finds meaning in life.
This statement may not be out of place here, especially if we agree with Plato's assertion that the greatest artist is he who lives a well-ordered life. But if this statement of Barber's really does apply to life, how are we to interpret it? Does it mean that we should artificially "complete the gestures," and so create an aura or dream in which to live? To come to that conclusion would be to misunderstand an essential requirement of the artist: that he be able to stand back from his work, and maintain "æsthetic distance" with regard to it in order to see the true relationship of each part to the whole. Probably, then, the implication is that we should try to expand our view to take in the whole sweep of life, seeing each context within the greater context of human possibility.

This does not mean that we should repudiate every particular approach to life as being partial. We must be partial in a sense, or our "art" could not have "style." Shakespeare in all his works expressed in some way the Elizabethan world-view, and we must fulfill within ourselves the "incomplete gestures" of these confused United States. But while working within this present context, and while savoring and helping to create its particular meaning, we must still keep our perspective, and act in such a way that our words and deeds are not dependent upon this particular context for their meaning. For although it is in a sense just a dream that we are fashioning, we at least can be awake; and though (as the questioner suggests) the world seems as transient and chaotic as a newsreel, we can see in what ways films can be made into works of art, thereby achieving the beauty and eternality of art, despite obvious transience. In our own lives perhaps this means stepping back from ourselves, taking the position of the perceiver, and watching ourselves acting, even watching ourselves becoming angry or being amused or calculating or praying or despairing -- perhaps even falling in love. "So that's what it's like," we would say.

Does this kind of detachment destroy spontaneity? Perhaps it could, but certainly it needn't. There is a world of difference between this detachment and that insane feeling of disconnectedness from which our whole civilization is suffering at the present time. Really it is merely stepping away a bit in order to savor more fully; and if anything would be destroyed in this process, it would be just our tendency to react blindly to one another. Such emotional tropisms, although they usually pass for communication, were perhaps better destroyed, for they have a place only in dreams, and indicate that we know deeply neither ourselves nor the person we are confronting. Far different, far gentler and yet more powerful, is that natural spontaneity of soul for soul; for it is sparked by a recognition of inner kinship, and leads us into action by the force of love.


COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:

TO BECOME AWAKE

I believe that man's growth is a process of continuous birth, of continuous awakening. We are usually half-asleep and only sufficiently awake to go about our business; but we are not awake enough to go about living, which is the only task that matters for a living being. The great leaders of the human race are those who have awakened man from his half-slumber. The great enemies of humanity are those who put it to sleep, and it does not matter whether their sleeping potion is the worship of God or that of the Golden Calf. 


--ERICH FROMM

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YOUTH FORUM
(June 1964)
[Article number (20) in this Q&A Department]

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