Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2011.06.28 — Beyond Fate by Margeret Visser — finished

Begun 2011.05.26.
Margaret Visser.
Beyond Fate,
Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.
ISBN 0887846793

☆☆☆☆☆ out of ☆☆☆☆☆.
Margaret Visser's premise is an excellent one, which is that we as citizens of a 'free' society are using that freedom to choose to revert back to being victimized by fate. We don't call it fate. Instead we have with encouragement from the media, economic experts and the like, chosen to call it 'globalization' or 'technoloighy' or 'meaninglessness.'

After having so thoroughly enjoyed Visser's Much Depends On Dinner, I confess to having been a little disappointed with the first lecture. I wrestled with what I didn't like, and I tentatively think that I found that her style of oral presentation had not translated well to the written word. A bit too repetitive, and a few too many returns to the opening theme.

But her ideas, and the philosophical and linguistic associations and cultural meaning she discusses are genuinely interesting. For example, Visser examines how the Greek (and hence Roman) thinking was rooted in fate via the ideals of honour/shame, place/revenge, and how that zeitgeist imprisons the citizenry in a status quo concomitantly with endless cycles of honour saving revenge. (See Begun 2011.05.26 for a look at Greek fatalism.)

Visser articulates the idea with the image of a line contrasted against the closed line (circle). By the end of the book she has tied the idea very well to present practices and habits of thought.

An example of one of these interesting and important points she makes in the first lecture is the role that Christian beliefs founded in Judaism had in breaking the trap of the shame/revenge cycle:

An important aspect of the Christian revolution was a new resolve to break out of the ancient Greek and Roman view that human beings are in thrall to fate. Christianity's roots in Judaism provided it with a perennially powerful story about hope and freedom: that of the Exodus, or Way Out. The picture is of a journey of a people out of bondage to liberation. The journey took time, forty years — the number forty being a Jewish symbol for enough time, "the time it takes." This epic of liberation from captivity — through vision, determination, trust, and agreement to obey God's law — is a radical alternative to fatalistic thinking, to believing that the way things are is necessarily how they must continue to be. The biblical account of the Exodus made linear time, rather than cyclical time, a foundational metaphor for the West, and hence for any society influenced by the cultures of the West. Implicit in it is the concept of progress: human beings are able to free themselves, to learn, to achieve enlightenment. The road metaphor is kept but its meaning changed(20-1)
The second lecture, 'Fate and Furies' redeems the book. It is simply brilliant but not as good as the third lecture, 'Free Fall.' Visser articulates the difference between shame and guilt and why knowing the difference is important. Shame is conferred onto the person by the society — it requires an audience. Guilt, on the other hand, is felt by the individual, and is invisible to the society. This is important, Visser argues, because shame demands a revenge in order to recover the lost honour, whereas guilt demands self knowledge and repentance. It also allows for, but does not demand, forgiveness. The former binds the person to his or her fate, whereas the latter allows for the individual to change and grow. Guilt, repentance and forgiveness empowers the individual to move beyond his/her own failings and to redeem his or herself, i.e. to grow, independently of how the society sees that person. Fate does not allow for that, and Visser effectively argues that we are societally reverting to fate language, fateful thinking, and feelings of being imprisoned by forces beyond our abilities.

From 'Fate and Furies:'

An honour system is communal, close, warm — even fiery. It insists on selfless loyalty to all those defined as being one's own. Individualism, on the other hand, can often feel cold and lonely. It seems at times to undermine every attempt at community. In an individualistic society, the very same diagram as that of the jigsaw we referred to earlier lies behind many metaphors for social patterning. Only here what is being said by the diagram tends to be that each area, each life, is complete in itself, separated from all the others, responsible for itself. Impingement upon others is discouraged, and the invasion of one's own privacy is experienced as an outrage. The image is like the one we looked at earlier, of a table set for dinner. Or a demand that others — especially strangers, of course — should not nudge or pat me too often, or stand too close while speaking to me, or sit down right next to me when I was hoping to be all alone on the beach. Individualism tends not only to protect but to isolate; it can trap people behind the walls that separate each person from every other.

What individualism demands — just as the whole point of guilt is the possibility of forgiveness that it offers — is for people to feel safe enough, ready and willing and free enough, to open up those protective barriers in order to notice, take care of, and finally love other people, even those not felt to be immediately rewarding or appealing. The outstanding characteristic of Christianity is its placing the highest value of all on love, not only for one's family or group, but for everyone — including people who do things like chew with their mouths open. This insistence that love is greater than all the other virtues was, in the context of classical culture at the time of Christianity's beginnings, a revolutionary notion, since it appeared to downplay bravery, loyalty, honesty, obedience, dignity, and all the other ideals of ancient Rome. One of the social or structural reasons for the Christian insistence on love was the immense push that the new religion simultaneously gave to individualism. Without the transcendence love provides, individualism becomes a prison. Individualism requires transcendence so that the "walls," so wisely and carefully raised in order to shelter the individual from incursions by others, can remain — but be surmountable, for higher ends (49-50).
I highly recommend this book, even though the first lecture is a tad hard to get through. Her concerns about a strong return to fatalism is I think, well founded and well argued.

Near the end of the book, she astutely links 'boredom' with exacerbating fatalistic thinking and actions. And she proffers an antidote to the drift towards powerlessness! And no, not just affirming mantras of power and adequacy:

Escape from fatalism and its twin warders, boredom and embarrassment, begins simply with consciousness — with paying attention. To be disinterested — that is, to be interested in things in and for themselves, and not because of possible profits for yourself — and especially to pay attention to what is supposed to be boring or taken for granted, is to begin to effect a minor revolution, another word for which is 'conversion.' Notice immediately that paying attention is an action: we are free to do it — or to turn away(143).
She elaborates three other actions and another state of mind as tools to combat fatalism in thought and action. (But I find it very evocative that her first action is what Cesar Milan tries to teach his dog owners: to be fully aware of their actions and their dogs real needs.)

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