Some Reflections on the Project

I hide nothing from myself, pass over nothing. For why should I be afraid of any of my mistakes, when I can say: ‘Beware of doing that again, and this time I pardon you. In that discussion you spoke too aggressively: do not, after this, clash with people of no experience; those who have never learned make unwilling pupils. You were more outspoken in criticizing that man than you should have been, and so you offended, rather than improved him: in the future have regard not only for the truth of what you say but for the question whether the man you are addressing can accept the truth: a good man welcomes criticism, but the worse a man is, the fiercer his resentment of the person correcting him’? — Seneca

You have here, Reader, a book whose faith can be trusted, a book which warns you from the start that I have set myself no other end but a private family one. I have not been concerned to serve you nor my reputation: my powers are inadequate for such a design. I have dedicated this book to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours. They will thus keep their knowledge of me more full, more alive. If my design had been to seek the favour of the world I would have decked myself out better and presented myself in a studied gait. 1 Here I want to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving 2 or artifice: for it is my own self that I am painting. Here, drawn from life, you will read of my defects and my native form so far as respect for social convention allows: for had I found myself among those peoples who are said still to live under the sweet liberty of Nature’s primal laws, I can assure you that I would most willingly have portrayed myself whole, and wholly naked. And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain. Therefore, Farewell. — Montaigne

We stop appreciating ourselves enough when we communicate. Our actual experiences are not in the least talkative. They could not express themselves even if they wanted to. For they lack the words to do so. When we have words for something we have already gone beyond it. In all speech there is a grain of contempt. Language, it seems, was invented only for average, middling, communicable things. The speaker vulgarizes himself as soon as he speaks. — Nietsche

An autobiography is so difficult to write because we possess no standards, no objective foundation, from which to judge ourselves. There are really no proper bases for comparison. I know that in many things I am not like others, but I do not know what I really am like. Man cannot compare himself with any other creature; he is not a monkey, not a cow, not a tree. I am a man. But what is it to be that? Like every other being, I am a splinter of the infinite deity, but I cannot contrast myself with any animal, any plant or any stone. Only a mythical being has a range greater than man’s. How then can a man form any definite opinions about himself? We are a psychic process which we do not control, or only partly direct. Consequently, we cannot have any final judgment about ourselves or our lives. If we had, we would know everything—but at most that is only a pretense. At bottom we never know how it has all come about. The story of a life begins somewhere, at some particular point we happen to remember; and even then it was already highly complex. We do not know how life is going to turn out. Therefore the story has no beginning, and the end can only be vaguely hinted at. — Jung.

These four quotes help frame much of what I write here. The first two — from Seneca and Montaigne — are about the necessity of personal revelation in such a project. Without it, there’s nothing to grasp or pay attention to … and it is in the pieces that miss the mark or go on an inflated tangent where the most interesting thoughts are revealed. I’m grateful for my worst posts, because they inevitably inspire two to three updates that almost always reach an interesting destination.

The third and fourth quotes are the cautionary reminders to me that no matter how much is said in so many ways, there is never a definitive account of how we feel or think. For Nietzsche, that’s a defect of language. We are always trying to take our completely unique perspective on the world and translate it as broadly as possible, but in the process of doing this, we tame our experiences and make them like others. I disagree with Nietzsche that there is contempt in the action. Rather, I think the inevitable mis- and under-communications are leaven with sadness. Most of the time, we wish we had the capacity to express it better. That is why there is poetry, painting and every other art form, but even these often fall right back into the trap of interpretation. Art exist because it defies interpretation.

Jung takes a different approach to this communicative failure — a lack of perspective. We cannot make objective comparisons between us and anything that is useful for illustrative. When we fall back on a scientific approach, we end up with the same failure that Nietzsche mentions, making everything average, losing the unique aspects of character. Furthermore, Jung understands that as much as we like to think we are in control of our thought processes and the direction of our intentions, we always fall short of such control. Psychic processes are at play that push us where they want to go.

When asked if he fully plots out his novels in advance, Cormac McCarthy responded “No. Plotting is death.” I believe McCarthy, and that’s why his work is brimming with vitality. I could not imagine a careful, plotting mind imagining something as terrifying as “Blood Meridian.” We have to trust our internal process to drive us and have faith in our own ability to keep it all from spinning into an incoherent mess.

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