Here are some sloppy ideas on Lacan’s influence on subjectivity. Comps are right around the corner, and I’m starting to freak out a little. Today will be spent on literature and fiction though. I’ll get back to the theory this weekend!

Freud and Lacan contributed to a radically new understanding of the subject as decentered, without a fully-present center that the subject controls. Freud took the idea that we are in control of our minds away with his introduction of the unconscious that subject are unaware of, and Lacan further complicated the subject by explaining how even “consciousness is structured like a language.” A result of Lacan’s structuralism, he posits that since language structures consciousness, the subject’s understanding of itself gets dispersed over sliding signifiers, never really knowing or understanding itself. This idea of the subject as constructed by language heavily influenced neo-marxist’s, such as Althusser and Zizek, ideas of ideology, as well as gender theorist, such as Irigaray. Lacan’s influence manifest most poignantly in the manner ideology affects the subject, who is constructed by language. These thinkers all use Lacan’s contributions to subject formation to reconfigure ways of thinking about the subject caught in ideology.

Althusser examines capitalism and the ideology at work within the system to explain how ideology (and capitalism) reproduces itself perpetually through Ideological State apparatuses (ISA). While this examination of ideology’s control over a population springs from Marxism, Althusser applies Lacan to Marxism in order to explain how subjects consent to ideology unconsciously. Maintaining the Marxist stress on economic causes, Althusser furthers this analysis to explain how ISAs function with autonomy. Althusser begins with Lacan’s concept of the Imaginary stage, the preverbal stage babies inhabit; at this point, consciousness is not Marx’s “false consciousness” but primordial. For Lacan, the subject then moves into language and the symbolic stages, also the place where the subject identifies with itself in the mirror, at the mirror stage. Althusser uses Lacan’s subject formation to explain how the subject is born into ideology, which, much like the Freudian unconscious, dictates how the subject behaves in society. Althusser posits that a subject’s individuality gets generated through social forces, and he uses Lacan’s mirror stage to explain how the subject identities itself in society.

Althusser states that ideology works on the idea of a Sign, where, in ideology, the sign is always (mis)recognized. While a subject might think that its actions are freely chosen, ideology sees to it that (unconsciously) its acts are pre-chosen. The subject, following Lacan’s subjectivity, sees an idealized version of itself, taught through ISAs and enforced by RSAs, in capitalism, but as it is in the mirror stage, this self is misrecognized; the subject puts itself in an idealized position in the capitalist system without realizing that it has no control over the system.

This analysis leaves a very bleak view of subjectivity, for how can a subject escape society’s trap when, as Marx put it “They do not know it, but they are doing it”? Althusser offers no solutions for the subject to escape. In Reading Capital, Althusser posits that more than answers, the questions posed need rethinking because the questions were based on the ideological answers already in misrecognition with the capitalist system. Furthermore, Althusser leaves very little room for critique since any critique arises out of the very ideology that has subjects tapped. More traditional Marxists critique Althusser’s lack of discussing class struggle, but if subjects are born into ideology, then the very idea of class and the structures of society arise out of ideology; therefore, by analyzing ideology, Althusser does—even if not directly—examine social structures. Lacan, through Althusser, contributes to rethinking Marxism, generally, and to thinking of ideology on the subject, specifically. Another problem to contemplate is who deploys this ideology? If subjects are all born into language, then the people in charge of ideology are also part of ideology and the analysis becomes a never-ending Russian doll or mirrors reflecting each other. Although, keeping Althusser’s idea about asking the correct questions in mind, Zizek examines ideology and the way it works in society as well, acknowledging that philosophy’s job is not to give answers but to ask the right questions.

Zizek strives to ask the correct questions, examining ideology and furthering what Althusser begins: ideology as the “thing” we participate in without knowing it. The subject’s belief in ideology establishes belief before the belief in ISAs. Again, just as in Althusser’s analysis of Lacan, the subject comes into ideology in the symbolic when the subject comes into language. Language, then, encompasses the subject—the space in which the subject lives (in a Heideggerian way, language is where the subject (Being) dwells). Zizek’s interest lies in the Lacanian Real and in the many manifestations of ideology, and how the Real accounts for language’s failure. The Real lies both within and outside of the subject, resisting the Symbolic’s attempts to describe it but also revealing the Real’s existence. Zizek views fantasy—object a—as a space that conceals the gap, which only proves the existence of the Real. The gap becomes what the subject most desires, imagining the other as possessing the thing that is desired. This “thing,” the gap, the desire of the subject that the other has, gets filled by ideology. Ideology tells the subject what to desire; much in the same manner that Althusser claims subjects follow ideology without awareness, Zizek claims that ideology tells the subject what to desire. Additionally, Zizek conceives of the Big Other as purely symbolic, yet having the power to order the subject’s actions. The Big Other is the institutions (ISAs for Althusser) that order reality, and the Real gets disavowed in favor of the symbolic. The Real, however, is “radically ambiguous…it erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but it serves at the same time as a support of this very balance” (Zizek, Looking Awry 29). The Real then manifest itself both in ordering the symbloci universe of the subject as well as intruding and collapsing that universe.

Zizek posits that postmodernism claims that we live in an era of post-ideology; while he claims that we are actually more in ideology than ever, only a cynical ideology. Therefore, Zizek explains that the Real causes conflicts that arise because of social reality, the symbolic order. The conflicts that arise from the Real fall outside of language, but the conflicts are seen in the manner ideology works on subjects. Ideology conceals the lacuna opened up by attempts to thematize the Real, which falls outside of language, and leads Zizek to purport that objective truth remains impossible but that ideology must exist since this antagonism exist, which is what Zizek analyzes.

Zizek views subject formation in much the same way as Althusser in that the subject is born into language and language is ideology. For Zizek, ideology hides the real problems and causes the wrong questioning, a notion Althusser already analyzed. For Zizek the way to ask the right questions is to step back and explore the moments of the Real that erupt into reality. Lacan’s influence on Zizek is pervasive; as Zizek explains, he uses Lacan as his theoretical base to analyze everything from Marx, Hegel, and Kant to Hitchcock, film nior, and popular culture. Lacan’s biggest contribution to Zizek is in the former’s later conception of Real and the barrier between the Real and reality. Zizek can be said to contribute to Lacan’s work by continuing this analysis that Lacan start later in his career. Both Altheusser and Zizek build on Lacan’s ideas of the Law of the father to explore ideology. In Lacan’s theory, the child meets the Law of the father to realize its place in a network where its choices in that network are already determined, established by the society it was born into. Just as the subject in ideology is born into ideology and must follow the law of the society it is born into.

The problem of being born into the regulations of society manifest in the manner society determines sexuality, which Irigaray critiques. Lacan’s contribution to Irigaray, again, lies in his theory of subject formation. For Irigaray, however, Lacan excludes women. In the mirror stage, the infant projects an imaginary body that is misrecognized; then in the symbolic stage—entrance to language—the infant further begins to create an ego. Irigaray agrees with Lacan on these points, and with the cultural influence on how the subject sees its body biologically. The problem for Irigaray, emerges in Lacan’s master-signifier being the phallus, thus privileging the male. The imaginary construction of the body holds the male body in higher esteem throughout Western discourses of science, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, leaving women out. The subject, for Lacan, must have a relationship to the phallus to attain social existence.

For Lacan, the infant wants to usurp the Master Signifier and have all of the mother’s attention. When the baby realizes the law of the father prohibits the infant from taking over, the baby begins to realize its place in society, acquiring its own relationship to the phallus. Sexual difference arises out of having or being the phallus. These processes happen through language, which Irigaray explores, especially how gender arises out of cultural constructs bound up with language. Therefore, Lacan’s contributes to Irigaray by establishing her departure point, the gendering of the subject through language (ideology for Althusser and Zizek). She takes a radical step back from Lacan, refusing to categorize or explain female subjectivity, caliming that doing so would interfere with women redefining themselves; she then posits the inability to describe the feminine outside of male hegemony. Her project becomes problematic, in much the same manner as Derrida’s: how can anyone redefine women (even women) if everyone is caught in male vocabulary that has excluded women. Lacan, himself, failed to realize how immersed within ideology he was when he privileged males over females, leaving females out. Nonetheless, Lacan gave Irigaray the vocabulary to begin discussing the exclusion of females from Western thought.

Lacan helps all of these thinkers examine the subject caught up in ideology because of language. Society establishes a language and forgets the power of that language to control culture and thought. Lacan helps Althusser, Zizek, and Irigaray formulate subjects and subjects place within society, and that place is a precarious one since the subject is so radically fragmented form the mirror stage on, and these thinkers focus on that fragmentation and how hegemonic powers take advantage of that fragmentation to control it populous.


I don’t have much to say other than I loved reading this selection from the new Norton Anthology. G and G perform what they preach in “Introduction: Rhizome” from A Thousand Plateaus, a book I feel I must read now.

The challenge the conventional ideas of ideas, of thinking, of books and philosophy: “We will never ask what a book means, as signified and signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with…” (1455). This is the direction I see myself going towards more and more; that is, not looking for meanins but rather trying to understand how things mean. How does a book create meaning? How does society impose its meanings?

G and G challenge the notion of the book in the Western tradition. The book is like a root (the image of logos as a root)– and to go off on an aside here for a minute– I wonder (and I’m sure this is out there somewhere) what G and G would think of Heidegger’s conception of philosophy since he wanted to rethink philosophy not from the tree of logos or the roots but from the very ground from which the logos tree springs. In that sense, I’m sure the would like how Heidegger was challenging accepted modes of thought in philosophy; although, I’m sure they would have qualms with how he reordered philosophy and still found a center from which to spring. However, Heidegger is concerned with Be-coming– Dasien is, after all, the movement of Be-ing. In that sense, I believe that Heidegger can be seen as rhizomic writing. Yet again, though, G and G don’t want a beginning; they want “…neither beginning nor end, but always a middle…” (1458).

Mostly, I like their prose; the way they play with language and with the structure of logical thought: “We are writing this book as a rhizome. It is composed of plateaus. We have given it a circular form, but only for laughs” (1459).

This “logic” outlined in G and G, I believe can be seen in the works of early Palahiuk, in Joyce, in Danielewski, and with philosophers that perform in their text, such as Derrida or Ciouxous.

While talking to a colleague/friend the other day, we were discussing how this, this analyzing and constant reading of literature, does not seem to be a “normal” job. That since this is what we do, we are attracted to people who understand why it is so hard to lose/sell/give away books. People who understand why it is we write quotes down, constantly read, constantly go back and reread favorites, constantly seek out new books and writing. And I think that this need blurs into life.

There is this understanding that we can never grasp or obtain (own) words, stories, theories, the things we read, but we feel this need to memorize the thing. I have talked about this before, I think… But the concept comes from Derrida when he talks about a need to repeat over and over a phrase, to memorize a phrase, because this makes us feel like we can own it, like it is something graspable to hold on to. I think this notion is what compels people to be sport’s fans, “patriots”, attached to one theory over another. This is why there is so much bickering and fighting, why we have jealousy, anger– this is what Buddhist talk about. Our attachments to concepts whether it be concepts we have about patriotism, identity, literature, politics, or life in general, we can’t accept having those concepts questioned.

And I think I have talked about all this before when I discussed Demillo, and I counter charges that this is passionless as a misunderstanding of the concept of detachment. You can feel passionately about something without having that something determine your mood. But none of this really matters because you already have a concept of passion, life, and how to deal with all of it, and if this goes against that concept, you are going to think that everything I have said is bullshit anyway.

The point of this was to discuss how when I am sick or depressed or heartbroken or happy or any other emotion, I can easily go to my job as a server for a chain restaurant and fake it and do my job. If I have my classes planned out and I know what it is I need to cover, I can–more or less– go into a classroom and teach something that I have gone over a million times, but if I have any one overwhelming feeling that is occupying my brain, I can’t “think” or “work.” I can’t analyze something and write about it. I can’t apply concepts and look at problems, text, philosophy in any kind of new or interesting way. All I can do when I am like this, is this. Ramble on about things.

For example, this post started off in my head as a post about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and how the book is reminding me a little of Jung and how Jung discusses the journey into the unconscious and in that journey the subject needs to confront his shadow and his anima, though this book, thus far, doesn’t seem to have those factors. I wonder if it is (I am halfway done) that these thigns are not there because of the rotten state of affiars the unconscious is in, with its ash and destruction. The Road represents an unconscious without the proper myths to order it, without the proper language and signification to identify these objects of the unconscious that need to be confronted.

But my mind now feels like McCarthy’s Road– an apocalyptic vision of things under ash, dead forest, lost highways that crazy, starving cannibals roam eating up any signs of life and imprisoning people. The question becomes: can we learn anything about ourselves if we are by ourself without an other to refelct me and show me to myself? Can one (in Jungian terms) become self-actualized if the unconscious is broken of its symbols and shadow and anima that are supposed to be there and need to be confronted?

Maybe, my brain will be working by the time i finish the second half of the book, and maybe I can get to more reading and writing once this crazy holiday season is over… And maybe, this is my most fragmented ramblings yet…

Here is a poem by Byron that always reminds me of any apocalyptic visions

The Road, especially, with its images of a world where there is no food and people turn to eating each other reminds me of this poem:

The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lur’d their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress—he died.

I want to explore the connection between Joseph Campbell and Jacques Lacan. They both explore a symbolic (a necessarily symbolic) order that civilized society follows. I haven’t been able to formulate my thoughts yet, but I see this intermixing, and I think Campbell and Lacan can be put together with one informing the other. Campbell deals with myths, and Lacan deals with the story we tell ourselves, that are ultimately myths, too.

This is not the edition I am reading but couldn't find a picture otherwise

Campbell states that myths serve four basic functions:

1) Mystical: myths open up a mystical dimension; that is to say, behind the surface world, there is a mystical source for that world. I see this as, we see the sun rise and fall, so we come up with a mystical explanation, such as, some god is riding a chariot across the sky.

2) Cosmological: is our image of the world—how we perceive the world—which changes with from time to time (mostly because of science). The best example of this is the Copernicain revolution; we had thought the cosmos was ordered with the earth in the middle, and later we learned that it was the sun in the middle of our universe, and then later we learned that our universe isn’t even the center of the universe, etc…

3) Sociological: Myths are used to validate and maintain social order. This is seen in the mystical stories we tell ourselves, I believe. For instance, we have the story of Adam and Eve to not only describe how human beings ended up on earth, it is also a tale that tells us that we should obey a supreme being and not fall into vanity; therefore, the creation story serves the mystical purpose of explaining what is behind the surface, it also maintains order by telling us to obey the Big Other watching us.

4) Pedagogical: Myths are used for instruction, to teach society and guide individuals through life.

Myths then give society order, and, Campbell claims, that when myths break down, morals break down. Science has proven that the world is more than 6,000 years old, besides whatever Arkansas wants to say, so the power of the creation story and its functions breakdown, meaning that society breaks down, in Campbell’s words:

“With the loss of them [symbols/myths] there follows uncertainty, and with uncertainty, disequilibrium, since life, as both Nietzsche and Ibsen knew, requires life-supporting illusions; and where these have been dispelled, there is nothing secure to hold on to, no moral law, nothing firm” (Campbell 10).

But of course we need these lies (symbols—and I would argue that they are not lies in a traditional since, but rather, an opiate to help calm society. If a mad man sees an elephant in the room, that is a very real elephant to him, so could it really be termed a “lie”? I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school, and there was never a tension (not overtly) between learning about Adam and Eve and learning science proper. To say that myths (stories) are a lie, is to say that they serve no function besides merely pulling the wool over our eyes. And that might be the case for some; that is why Socrates says that, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”)

Campbell goes on to explain this how we need these lies saying:

“…lies are what the world lives on, and those who can face the challenges of a truth and build their lives to accord are finally not many, but the very few” (11).

Now Campbell goes on to say how psychology and the scientific study of where myths come from are what must be pursued, but I think Lacan is the way to go.

The functions of myth sound much like the Lacianian triad: Symbolic—imaginary—Real:

First, there is the Mystical aspect of myths, which corresponds to the Imaginary order, which is our image of the world. An example of this order is given by Zizek when he relates the triad to a game of chess: “Imaginary…namely the way in which different pieces are shaped and characterized by their names (king, queen, knight), and it is easy to envision a game in with the same rules, but with a different imaginary, in which the figures would be called ‘messenger’ or ‘runner’ or whatever (Zizek 8).

Secondly, the way we maintain social order (the Sociological) corresponds to Lacan’s Symbolic order. The Symbolic order is the rules we follow in order to play the game. The Big Other operates on this level and always watches us so that we follow the rules; just as the sociological function of myths gives us rules that we must follow.

Thirdly, Lacan’s Real corresponds to the Cosmological (the world we see that changes over time). The Real is, within this triad, everything else, such as a player’s intelligence, and forces we might have trouble foreseeing. The intrusion of reality into the triad, and one can see how we have set up a cosmological real (reality before Copernicus that saw the world as the center of the universe), but then has that “Real” change when science (the Real again intrudes), and shows us a new reality.

The Pedagogical aspect of Campbell, I believe, is the interaction (an interaction that takes place within Lacan) of the triad and the way each Lacanian aspect plays off each other.

There is something here between the breakdown of myths and the way society follows the Big Other (and I understand I am making a bit of a jump here witout explaining, but since so few people follow this and read it at all, I just need to write this all down before I forget). Myths only hold power, give society its moral grounding, in so far was society believes myths and allows myths to do so, just like the power of the Big Other:

“In spite of all its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presuppostion. It exist only in so far as subjects act as if it exists.”

And later:

“…so this [big Other, and I would argue myths and symbols] substance is actual only in so far as individuals believe in it and act accordingly’ (Zizek emphasis in original 10).

I believe there is an interaction within these two thoughts that can inform each other, and I will be exploring these thoughts in my readings. I want to end this now because I just got Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and I am excited to read it. Lacan says that the mad man, the psychopath is the one who does not follow the rules imposed by this Symbolic power of the Big Other, and Campbell says that there are mental illnesses from a loss of myths, so I want to see how this history of madness can further inform these readings of Campbell and Lacan.

Til my next fragmented thoughts come to light and intrude my thoughts like an invasion of the Real…

Post to come: on different types of melancholy, on the relation between death and heart break and how they relate to waiting and Heidegger’s present-at-hand…

I am continued to be confused, baffled, and even entertained by Antunes. The breakdown in chronological time is fascinating and reminiscent of Faulkner, and I even read a review of ‘What Can I Do’ that points out Faulkner’s obvious influence on Antunes here:

Indeed, Faulkner presides over “What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?” as a tutelary spirit. Here, for instance, is a legendary sentence, spoken by a death- befuddled child, from “As I Lay Dying,” published in 1930: “My mother is a fish.”And here, uttered by a baffled son, is a sentence from “What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?”: “You’ve turned into a fish, father.” Like Faulkner in his great novels of the ’30s, Antunes deploys idiot monologues, garrulous, colloquial voices, superheated atmospherics and dismembered narratives that exalt not-knowing as a prime literary excitement.

Chapter two continues in the same manner as chapter one. The reader is given a little more background, and it becomes very clear that Paulo is on heroine and, maybe, other drugs.

There is a great image of Paulo going to sit on the beach so that the ocean waves and wild horses can drown out the noise of his parents fighting, but the arguments get so loud and intense that the image of relaxing, rolling waves becomes violent: “… I was the one hurt out there by the horses and the sea” (21).

The overwhelming motif (more so than in any Joyce novel) is the inter-mixing of all the images and symbols. Memory becomes a dream becomes reality becomes madness, and one symbol goes from being one of peace to one of horror from one page to the next.

This chapter elucidates some of the narrator’s problems: he steals for drug money; he feels guilt but uses drugs to forget; he feels guilt for taking advantage of his guardians, but then dismisses his feelings because they are not his parents and then feels guilty for taking advantage of them again.

There are wonderfully lyrical passages of using drugs and its withdrawal:

heat at first, followed by cold, followed by an urge to crush myself, I don’t know what dying is like but they’re disentangling me from my body, conversations that get away from me, scarecrows in smok holding a basin up against my chest
— Vomit” (29).

Here the story of the Neighbor Dona Aurorinha is told. She had a lover she would write to, but the lover died of some desease.

There is an interesting contrast between when Paulo says that he knows how to tell time and how his narrative doesn’t follow any chronological time. It goes back to the philosophy of waiting it seems. For Paulo, time is broken, but not in the sense that he has to wait—that waiting time in which one endures and “feels” time’s slow passage. Paulo’s time is, rather, broken in that its linear-ality has been destroyed. He has no way of telling past, present, or future, and this reflects his phenomenological experience of lived time. Just as he can’t tell time (or, maybe, more accurately put, BECAUSE, he can’t “tell time” as he claims), he can’t tell experiences apart from one another, whether real, imagined, resulting from madness/sickness, or dream.

Yet, at the same time, his “time” (his experience within time) becomes an object of analysis. Something he takes apart and tries to analyze. The story, what one is reading, his depiction of events, is his attempt to analyze his situation, but he is having trouble doing so because he is so lost in “time”.

What Can I Do When Everything is on Fire? (A Novel) by: Antonio Lobo Antunes

I am getting around to reading one of the books that I received for my birthday. The title of this one was enough to make it my next choice of books to read. I want to look at this book chapter by chapter because it is, as the book jacket suggest, “…a poetic masterwork that recalls Joyce’s Bloomsday with its dizzying farrago of urban images that few readers will forget.”

The basic plot, from what I understand from reading the jacket (and the first chapter), is the story of Paulo trying to piece together the bits of his existence, but that existence is one of madness, fragile memory, and a reality that includes the most successful, flamboyant drag queen of Lisbon, Carlos/Soraia and his wife, Judite and his lover, Rui. It seems that Paulo has a breakdown and is sent off to a hospital, and somewhere along the way his parents give him up to some guardians. It seems that we are getting these fragments of his story from a mental ward.

The book opens up to the main character, Paulo, mixing a dream, an analysis of the dream, memory, and reality together in a poetic, stream-of-consciousness narrative that reveals very slowly the plot of novel. Paulo, at times, has a hard time separating what his dream was and what his memory was; he also has trouble remembering what reality is, as is seen when he mixes his parents with his guardians and his reality with his dreams and has obvious trouble with memory:

“my mother judite, my father carlos, the doctor, not this one, a fatter one,
I remember the doctor’s red necktie when they brought me in, a Gypsy woman who was hollering
or was I the one hollering?
the doctor
–What’s your mother’s name?
along with that I remembered the attendants, who were holding me by the wrists, from the ambulance Dona Helena had called
–Take it easy fellow
[…]
maybe it was the attendants who had helped me instead of the fat doctor with the red tie, not in this office bu in a room with no windows or a closet where the gypsy woman or I was hollering or maybe neither one of us, the noise of the dishes
–What’s your mother’s name?” (Antunes 2-3).

There is an interesting play of memory and dream and reality here, which raises interesting questions of what “reality” is? After all, aren’t our dreams part of our reality? And how much is a fragmented, unreliable memory reality?

We get that Paulo’s parents are dead (as well as Rui), that Paulo had a breakdown in which he broke lots of plates. These images are mixed superbly in a language that becomes easier to follow, but a language that is meant to be opaque. It becomes hard to decipher how much of the story is a memory and how much is madness.

There are images of fights between Paulo’s parents in which Judite is asking her husband about the bra she found, “Do you wear this, Carlos?” (17); along with images of Paulo’s drag queen father being described as a clown, and later, Paulo’s denial of his parent’s when he calls his guardians, the Couceiro’s, his real parents.

This narrative is quite a force that does more than merely convey a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. The reader is left wondering what can be trusted as the chapter ends:

“–I’m asleep
and since I’m asleep I don’t worry, everything is a lie, aware of the pillow sliding between the mattress and the trunk they were slamming me against” (19).

I look forward to see where all this is going. It is thus far an exploration of a person’s history of slipping into madness and blurring reality with dream and memory. It seems that Paulo trying to put this story into words is his way of trying to remember who he is. We are, after all, just what we were and what our future possibilities are. So what happens when we do not have a clear memory, or a broken memory, of the past?

awareness-anthony-de-mello-paperback-cover-art

I just finished reading Anthony De Mello’s “Awareness.” It has been about ten years now that I have been interested in Eastern philosophy and thought: Buddhism, Taoism, Hindu thought, etc.. Within that, I have also been interested in psychology, and if it weren’t for the math and stats, I might have studied psychology instead of English.

De Mello’s book does a great job of mixing Eastern thought, Christian thought, psychology, and philosophy into this book (which took me so long to read because I was worried it was a little too “self-help”).

The book says nothing new, but for me, it is always good to be reminded of simple things I always forget. I tend to mix the “I” and the “me” as De Mello would put it. De Mello tells us that we need to be awakened– and this idea is a common one: most Eastern religions discuss samsara, delusion, being asleep, and that enlightenment, nirvana, God, is awakening to reality. This idea is repeated here.

The thing that we need to be awakened to is that we are attached to our delusions about life. How many of us always say, “I’ll be happy when….” But the condition (the when) comes, and then we are happy for a short period of time only to fall into unhappiness again. The first step, therefore, is to realize that we are our own obstacle to our happiness. That the idea of happiness is all in our head (“nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”).

What is continually repeated throughout the book is:
1) We must make the distinction between the “I” and the “me”– things do not happen to “me,” they happen to the ego, the I. The “I” is not depressed, the “I” is not happy, the “I’ is not anything, but we use this language that confuses us: “I am sad,” “I am happy,” but YOU are NOT “DEPRESSED”- you just are and that feeling will pass. Your emotions do not make up who you are.

De Mello says, “Problems exist only in the human mind” (80). Because we identify with our feelings. Because we try to change other people and depend on others for our happiness, and because we don’t even realize that we do these things.

2) Language is there for communication but is imperfect and leads to delusions. When we use language we categorize things, create concepts about things, talk about life imperfectly. This is an interesting point that goes along with the postmodern philosophy I have been reading. This idea also greatly reminds me of Emmanuel Levinas, who talks about totalizing language. It is also a point that Derrida makes: once we speak, there is distance, the trace permeates all our definitions; furthermore, once we put things into language, we bring in all our preconceived notions about the thing we are speaking and putting into words.

De Mello gives a great example here:

Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless

Then he repeats the example a Hindu priest gave:

The ass that you mount and tha tyou use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. you use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it” (123).

I would say that many of the other things that De Mello talks about in this book stem from this concept about language. Since language is a social, culturally shared thing, then all the other things we are attached to stem from using language in society. It is society that tell me that I have to succeed, get a pretty wife, have kids, have a good career, when in reality all you have to do is live, which brings me to number three:

3) Much like Taosim (and Buddhism to the extent that Buddhism uses Taoist beliefs), De Mello reminds us that life just is. WIth in that, the goal of life is just to live and go with the flow as he says, “Eternal life is now. We’re surrounded by it, like fish in the ocean, but we have no notion about it at all” (137).

His prescription of detachment (which isn’t really a prescription to do anything), so to detach from everything. This means from other people, from social constructions and concepts, from even religion and God. You do not need God, religion, or other people to be happy; in fact, these things just foster attachment, which leads to disappointment and unawareness.

The only thing to do is as the Buddhist say: unlearn something everyday. Lose your notions of what you think is going to make you happy and save you. De Mello, though, doesn’t give you any kind of real “method” to do this because a method would be just another part of the trap of society (I can’t help but to think of Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Invisible Monsters while reading this stuff. De Mello, like Tryler, suggest that once you get sick of being disappointed by people (because you depend on them for your happiness) then you will be able to be free without attachments. De Mello, like Brandy Alexander, lets us know that any way you can think of to escape the “trap” is part of the trap because we are so conditioned by society).

De Mello’s approach takes on a rather non-totalizing, psychological approach. There is no hope for change unless it comes from within and from an awakening/awareness. Rather than say ‘this is what you must do,’ De Mello suggest a couple of things that will help you wake up, such as, being aware of where your feelings are coming from, try to see the world from other’s perspective, realize that you are attached to wanting praise, acceptance, etc.

I feel my problem is that I am attached to wanting un-attachment. I am too concerned with wanting to “get it” with wanting to “wake up” that it gets in the way of being able to reach any kind of enlightenment. I am also selfish in my love– I want the other to want me and need me, which makes me want and need the other. But I am too attached to wanting to not want the other… It is a big mess really. But De Mello also lets us know that there is nothing you can “do.” You can only live and try to be aware of life– it reminds me of Tich Nhat Hahn’s idea of mindfulness. So… I guess I’ll stop doing…