Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Love, Desire, and Humanity Swirled Into an Expansive Harry Frankfurt / Jonathan Safran Foer Marble Cake

You'll need some time and patience for this one.

Harry Frankfurt's hugely important paper "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person" is one of those pieces of philosophy that's helped me to understand myself and other people better. His basic thesis is that the essential feature of "personhood" is a certain quality of the will, which is a condition for moral accountability as well as the basis for the peculiar sort of respect that we give to other persons. (Personhood has empirically only ever comprised members of the human race, but theoretically it could extend to other species as well if certain conditions obtained.) Frankfurt argues that this certain quality of the will is the possibility for regulative self-evaluation; basically, we have first-order desires (think: hunger, thirst, libido, etc, but also less strictly-biological yearnings, like a longing for a father's approval), and second-order desires that actually have our first-order desires as their content.
Persons, then, are the sorts of beings that are concerned with the desires that they have; beyond mere calculation in the pursuit of first-order desires, we also have the ability to reflect on our desires and choose ones in particular that we desire to be aligned with our will. Charles Taylor, in typical brilliant fashion, takes this characterization one step further by arguing that second-order desires also involve what he calls 'strong-evaluation', a moral (in a very broad sense of the word) judgment that is informed by an idea of the sort of person that one wishes to become.
Persons, on this account, are creatures that are concerned with the sorts of creatures that they are, and the sorts of creatures that they are becoming. Interestingly enough, this is more-or-less in line with Martin Heidegger's phenomenological description of da-sein (the sort of being-in-the-world of human beings), but conceived almost entirely within the analytic tradition. The key element here that I wish to emphasize is the desire for other desires.
Now I will geek out in a different direction. I'm reading a great novel by Jonathan Safran Foer called Everything is Illuminated. The story is divided into alternating narrative halves: the first is the ongoing personal account, in hilariously broken English, of a Ukrainian translator who has been hired to work for an American writer intent on finding the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The other half is the story being written by the American, which traces his grandfather's lineage in a remote shtetl community back to the late eighteenth century; it is whimsical and delightfully droll. The chapter I just finished deals with Brod, the American writer's great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who as a baby was rescued from a river after it swallowed her family's wagon as well as the rest of her family. She is adopted by Yankel, a seriously misfortunate but big-hearted old man, who does his best to raise the precocious and beautiful girl in a community filled with men that obsess over her.
Several pages dedicated to Brod and Yankel's relationship touch on a common human problem which refers us back to Frankfurt and second-order desires. Though Brod and Yankel are attentive to one another and seem to cherish one another, Foer writes (and it is worth quoting at length)
But my very-great-and-lonely-grandmother didn't love Yankel, not in the simple and impossible sense of the word. In reality she hardly knew him. And he hardly knew her. They knew intimately the aspects of themselves in the other, but never the other. . .
But each was the closest thing to a deserving recipient of love that the other would find. So they gave each other all of it. . . when Yankel said he would die for Brod, he certainly meant it, but that thing he would die for was not Brod, exactly, but his love for her. And when she said Father, I love you, she was neither naive nor dishonest, but the opposite: she was wise and truthful enough to lie. They reciprocated the great and saving lie - that our love for things is greater than our love for our love for things - willfully playing the parts they wrote for themselves, willfully creating and believing fictions necessary for life.
There is a lot worth going over in this passage, especially the brief riff on 'otherness', but I want to focus on the theme of love for love. Earlier in the chapter, Brod discovers that the world does not meet her expectations, and she cannot find anything that deserves to be loved by her, because her love is perfect and tremendous. And so, in need of an object, her love turns in on itself, and her relationships with the things in her life becomes mediated by her meta-love; she loves her love for things primarily, and the things themselves secondarily. Brod cannot sustain an un-mediated love for an imperfect object, and so cannot love the world she finds herself in or its contents. Yankel's love for Brod is founded upon his various emotional, spiritual, and psychological needs; when he was much younger, his wife left him without a reason, and he was additionally dishonored in his community for reasons that are not made clear. He gives himself over to his care for Brod as a way of giving his waning life purpose and direction, and so his love is similarly mediated.
As Frankfurt argues that a capacity for second-order desires are partially constitutive of our personhood, Safran Foer obliquely points towards this capacity as a source of our loneliness and sorrow. Second-order desires have both a positive and negative aspect, and the negative looms larger than the positive; second-order desires call into question our first order desires, and lead us to make choices against the majority of them in the pursuit of one that we would wish to identify with our will. However, this choice is susceptible to weakness and a lack of resolve, so even our positive willful affirmations do not result in success in every case. Frequently, we don't have the heart to do what we want to do (in this, there are echoes of a Pauline lament). We are self-regulative creatures, but therefore, we seem also to be creatures that are largely incapable of fully embracing our desires, and of sustaining direct and unmediated loves for things. Fear and disappointment prevent these important human happenings from happening.

The reason for today's post is my growing unease over mediated loves and truncated desires in my life and the lives of those around me. An insightful article from a Spring '10 issue of Harper's Magazine identified this problem with late-stage post-modern capitalism. The logic runs like this: 19th century industriocentric capitalism had essentially to do with the production of goods. Modern 20th century capitalism had essentially to do with the production of desires. Late-stage postmodern capitalism, our particular digitally-affected variety, has to do with the production of identity. Advertisers and marketing execs use psychological research to figure out what's cool or classy, and sell people an ideal image of themselves (a classic apple-polishing fallacy, but when since the 1800's have advertisements operated on a logical level to make an appeal?). Of course, intuitively it seems that mediated love in particular is a more human, less particularly economic, problem, but perhaps it has been compounded and intensified by our current social and cultural moment, allowed to grow large in the toxic commercial-psychic water we're all swimming in (but not drinking or using to bathe, at least not at my house, nope).
It takes a lot of guts to love something that is imperfect for its own sake, and not for the sake of loving your love for it or the appearance of loving it. And the full embrace of desire - the affirmation that it is good (desire itself, but obviously not all desires), and the commitment to the pursuit of it - is almost impossible, in the face of our nervy regulative self-evaluation, doubt, and concern for who we are in the eyes of an unknowable 'public.' But, reiterating a Heideggerian theme from an earlier post, care is the most basic human posture towards the world, and in this vein it is our loves and desires that give our lives thickness, richness, and depth. I would choose to love in a gutsier and more whole-hearted way, because that is humanizing, and to allow my desires to be full-sized and compelling to me, because that is also humanizing - but the risks involved are too significant to ignore. To give this problem a Nietzschean spin: why choose to explore the heights and the valleys of human life when the comfortable lazy plains present themselves? This is the pressing question for people in our epoch, I would suggest, and the denigration of theistic resources in the service of an answer may directly correspond to the growth of the postmodern malaise of inarticulate anxiety, boredom, and purposelessness.

So here's to love, desire, and everything else that makes us human, and a prayer for the miracle that would be full, unmediated love for things and an embrace of the desire that is eternal and infinite in scope.

1 comment:

  1. I attended a new small group last night, and a current Wheaton student there described how in high school he would give of himself profusely on behalf of certain friends. He said that he recently realized that his main reason for championing them in this way was that he only ever felt close to God when other people served or showed affection to him in ways that he probably shouldn't have expected them to; he tried to become a Superman for a few other people in the hope that one of them would do the same for him so that he could once again know God. I was intrigued by his description of the winding psychological circuits we use to convince ourselves we're doing something other than trying to get what we think we want. Similarly, I think I'm good at convincing myself that the initial, primary, and decisive factor in my decision-making is not simply self-interest ("What's in it for me?").