Character(s)

Keats, in one of his letters, writes, "even now I am perhaps not speaking from myself, but from some Character in whose soul I now live". While I will come back to this letter, the line seems particularly reflective of our romantically disoriented age, when people tattoo characters on their bodies hoping to embody that multiplicity that is still limited.
Characters also feature on "reality" shows (the jealous one, the peace-maker, the controlling one), which I can't help but compare to the types that are gods in myth - which came with accouterments of a full world vision, often with prefaces or passages of dedication to the gods, not only to capriciousness, but to where they stood for memory, or wisdom. In that vision, man is but a small actor.
To keep with antiquity, Theophrastus, a student of Plato's and Aristotle's, known largely for his study of plants, is also known for his work Jebb translated as Characters, about character types. He professes to be a "student of human nature" and claims his intention is to help "our sons" better navigate through character types, to know to fraternise with only the best.
A notion of "the finest" to save one from drowning in the ocean of characters; is it possible to suffer from too much "humanity"?




Norman Douglas in Old Calabria writes of racial character type (pp.126-7), and offers his solution to the short height or acrimonious bigotry of some races as being one of diet: proper nutrition makes men taller and more rational. The dilution of enviousness is a question of food. He advocates a more placid type: where placid does not mean something "dangerously akin to self-pity" but steadiness and self-containment. Lest one think this means something like stoicism, this is not what he meant for a page earlier he writes, "There are no stoics among well-fed people."
It is the line, "dangerously akin to self-pity" that brings associations, to my mind at least, of this ocean of humanity where humans can drown. There is a fine line between treating others as one wants to be treated and indulging them because one wants to be indulged and not do the learning that helps one make something where before there was nothing, through the golden effort.
Like the kind that exists on a physical and figurative plane: in physical training. Xenophon in Memorabilia, 3.12, has Socrates speak of its benefits - ranging from glory in war and the related reality of being less likely to be captured as a slave, to mental benefits, where exercise wards off illness and depression, for example. It may be added that self-pity is harder when one builds confidence through gaining increased strength.




A youtube trainer who is effective and full of gusto often speaks about the importance of setting goals, getting through the workouts day after day, and knowing that there will be no results if there is no pain: that physical "good pain" is a helpful daily reminder. Which is not to say that one remembers to exercise at all phases of life, like Aurelius writes in his Meditations, pp. 69, "Recall your true, your sober self, shake off the slumber". Aurelius writes much of mental exercise, which, like more advanced physical exercise, may be described by the Douglas phrase, "self-containment" where the word implies self-control and independence - also providing something of a blank slate.
Gerald Rendall, who translated Meditations, sums up this view by writing, xxxiiv emphasis added, "to assaults from without, whether from the unkindness of fortune or the malignity of man ... the freehold of the mind none other may contravene ... it stands fast ... the field ... into which man can ever at a moment withdraw himself ... and be clapped in perfect ease". Aurelius writes, 31 emphasis added, "remember to retire within that little field of self. Above all do not strain or strive, but be free". This is the figurative component of physical exercise. "Ever and anon grant yourself this retirement" he adds, just like the exercise needs to be done ever and anon. Fitness is not a laurel upon which to rest. It is work that is not tiring because of the benefits it brings.
Character in the context of these activities is very different from character Keats' letter (NB. written in a specific context). Character here is steady and self-contained. Which is not to discount the validity of what Keats describes, if reminiscent of the self-absorbed roller-coaster of youth: "When I am in a room with people, if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then, not myself goes home to myself, but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me, so that I am in a very little time annihilated." It seems to me that despite emphasis on others, the letter centres on self - "All I hope is, that I may not lose all interest in human affairs" he writes, in the youthful melodramatic language of extremes, before time has a chance to give ironing lessons.




Thence the feelings, the softness of discipline, as opposed to strictness, clarity, precision. Pastoral dispensations (οικονομια) as opposed to strict and literal interpretations of canons (ακρίβεια): the comparison to illustrate that while self-containment, for example, may be a noble goal, there is the real problem of how to get there, how to start from where one is without lying to oneself and becoming a well-intentioned zealot or crushing one's gifts through a fearful self-effacement unschooled in discernment.
A letter of emotions is a reminder of what we could be, were, can be. The terrain is real. A man goes foraging for mushrooms, cooks some up at dusk, eats them, and in the morning finds in the basket among the remaining fungi a poisonous red that had got in there somehow, which he luckily had not eaten. Despite the vigil, the strictness, the precision, reality creeps in our vessels, asking if we will let it crack, or figure out how to keep going, creatively. It happens. Yet where would we be without clarity, strictness, and precision?
Again and again, the field is returned to, where character is built. Like one of my journalist friend from back in the day telling the story of how her father had her go out in sub-zero weather and scrape the ice off the windshield as "character building." Because hope or the balm of time are not blind faith; they are apprehended on "that little field".
It is little and wanting, and so this post begins again.


Magazines in background: Marie Claire Maison. Brush: Gimp.
The coffee in the photo echoes the coffee mentioned in the Douglas passage cited.

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