Chameleons with Feelings

Part of the problem being that we cannot step outside of ourselves and see where we are going in life, to avert mistakes, or to hold the course to where the weather is clement. What is the way, one may be wont to ask, particularly if one has been, as Horace advised writers, hurried into the middle of things (festinat et in media res). Thomas Carlyle has invoked Horace's counsel, writing, "rush forward and fear nothing" - which rather brings to mind the message Nike hides in some of its running clothes: "run fast, live fearless." Except Carlyle meant action, not speed. "Be not too careful for a subject; take the one you feel most interest in", he writes to an essayist. And if we are, to some extent, the authors of our lives, perhaps affinity, with its filmish Fin implying boundaries between here and there, is a good place to start.
In the Tao Te Ching (1), we are advised to not have desires if we are to see the Way, yet to have desires to see its manifestations - which Legge translates as "its outer fringe."
I understand this to mean that there is no formula for a life, because life itself is beyond definition. In (32) we learn, in both Legge's and Lau's translations: "Only when it is cut are there names. As soon as there are names one ought to know that it is time to stop" so that one might be "free from all risk of failure and error".
I was thinking about that when I listened to social psychologist Ellen Langer, talking about the impossibility of breaking free from the names or labels people construct for each other, and how freeing it is when a single person puts into practice the platitude that there is more than one way of looking at things (and thereby people) and realises that one way of defining a person ruins the definer's view of said person: for example, a rigid person can instead be seen as a stable person. In other words, (in John Conley's description of Madeleine de Scudéry's views), prejudice can be mistaken for knowledge. Names are like photographs: accurate for one second, but not necessarily in terms of the larger picture.
 

Today as I was running, I could no longer listen to contemporary music and had been overjoyed when I discovered that I could take the France Musique programme I was listening to on the road: rather aptly called "Le Passage de Midi". The four-part programme on the kiss is exquisitely curated, and possibly not coincidentally brings to mind the heightened sensibility of the précieuses. I found myself listening to a description of Scudéry's novelistic "Carte de Tendre" or, "Map of the Country of Tenderness" as the prolific Victorian French and English literary critic George Saintsbury translates it: a map of the territory suitors traverse to find their way to love: routes leading through the villages of letters and trinkets, or through villages of patience and faithfulness - hopefully never straying into the Lake of Indifference. A metaphysical map! One thinks of Dante's voyage.
Scudéry wrote of this map in her novel Clélie, a roman à clef in which important personages of the day were disguised in classical roles, not quite as long as her other novel Artamène, with over 2 million words.
Scudéry, like Giambattista Vico later, expressed philosophical differences with Descartes for his overestimation of reason. She even wrote The History of Two Chameleons to disprove his theory that animals were soulless machines. John Conley, in his SEP article on her notes that her interpretation of the world was not only empirical but also "sympathetic" and "aesthetic": she attributes emotions to her chameleons and notes the beauty of their motions and skin.
What does she say in response to the Delphic maxim γνῶθι σεαυτόν? That the "noetic agent" can reach such knowledge only if it can reveal the need for moral conversion. One thinks back to the chameleon, and the changing names of the Way. Except this is no relativism: there is a map, and if not drawn exclusively according to Cartesian introspection, it does have borders delineated by virtue and vice.
To have desire and yet to relinquish it (as per Tao 1): rather like Scudéry's topography of the inclined suitor that can traverse villages, but is surrounded by the dangerous sea of passion, uncharted at the fringes, dipping off into the unknown. "The way is to the world as the River and Sea are to rivulets and streams." "Knowing when to stop one can be free from danger." (Tao 32)




Postscript: Saintsbury's commentary on Clélie is most charming. He writes in his History of the French Novel that he could expand the outline of that novel "(and the process would not be very painful to me) into an abstract as long as that of Cyrus; but 'It Cannot Be.'" He ends the section on the novel writing, "If I were sent to twelve months’ imprisonment of a mild description, and allowed to choose a library, I should include in it  … Clélie … By reading slowly and ‘savouring’ the process, I should imagine that, with one’s memories of other things, they might be able to last for a year. And it would be one of the best kind of fallows for the brain."
Affinities...
Scudéry herself writes, "We are born with the inclinations which heaven was pleased to give us, but we enter into the possession of praise or blame only at the moment we begin to act through reason. Up to this point, nothing is truly up to us; after that point, we are responsible for everything we do, whether good or evil. Therefore, it is up to us to see what inclinations we should follow and those we should change. Having known the true path of glory and virtue, we should walk in it despite all the repugnance we might find within ourselves."
Desire with detachment?

Brush: Misprinted type.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License