On Selfhood

A word on what William Blake calls “Selfhood,” or the ego-consciousness, is in order after the last few posts, since it is the construct that hinders us from the direct perception of the true world. “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern” pertains to the fullness of awareness closed up in, and subordinated to, the ego-consciousness. Seth calls the ego-consciousness “the tyrant” for that reason. The Buddha referred to the ego-consciousness as a “conceit”, but also as the demon Mara, Lord of Illusions and the Architect of samsaric existence. Heraclitus calls the ego-consciousness “the private understanding” and holds it as an impediment to the perception of the Logos.

Just so, Blake held the Selfhood — the ego-consciousness — as the Architect of the Ulro, this world of Death and Time — and identified the Selfhood with Satan and with his mad Zoa, Urizen. Urizen is Mara. Urizen is Jehovah, whose true name is “I Am”. Blake also calls him “Nobodaddy”.

It bears repeating: narcissism is the human condition, and not just an episodic thing. In olden times, what we call “narcissism” was called “idolatry”, and much more is involved in idolatry than the worship of “things” as such. The chief human idol is the Selfhood, and is what the Buddha referred to as “the I am conceit”, and this forms the basis of the Buddhist teaching of anatman, or No-Self, No-Mind, No-Soul. (We will henceforth refer to this “I am” or Selfhood as “the human form”). The Biblical Psalmist who perceived the meaning of idolatry was speaking of what we now call “narcissism” when he wrote (Psalm 115),

4 But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
8 Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

That last line expresses the crucial problem that all that is called “religion” was originally conceived to address, but which has itself decayed over time into idolatry and narcissism and has become distorted. The entire meaning of what is called “religion” is contained in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the call to remembrance of who and what you are implicitly after a “fall” into a condition of dis-memberment. Dis-memberment is the dis-integrative state which is samsaric existence. It is Ixion crucified on the wheel of space and time. What William Blake calls “the Ulro” is this dis-integrative state in which the original human form — the “Universal Adam” — disintegrated into the four Zoas named Urizen, Luvah, Tharmas, Urthona — when the “divine humanity was slain upon the stems of vegetation”, as Blake puts it somewhat enigmatically.

“Become what you are!” is Nietzsche’s slogan for self-overcoming. The irony of that is, that it is the meaning of “religion” more generally. Religion is recollection. Recollection is return to origin. It’s the moment when the Prodigal Son comes to remembrance of himself as he sits amongst the swine; the moment when Blake’s Albion “rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves” and “danc’d the dance of Eternal Death”. Until then, he has been immersed in samsaric existence, sitting at the bottom of the Ulro, the Sea of Time and Death.

“Show me your face before you were born!” is a famous Zen koan. For all intents and purposes, it is equivalent to Nietzsche’s “Become what you are!” It implies that the ego-consciousness — what we think we are — is a mere usurper of identity — a “genuine imitation”, as it were. In fact, “usurpation” might be the most appropriate term for this. The Selfhood is a usurper.

What is ego-consciousness then? A construct. The Selfhood is the voice in your head that tells you who you are and what your world is like. That voice is there when you wake up in the morning and when you go to sleep at night and it follows you even into your dreams. And in between your waking and sleeping it is constantly telling you who you are and what your world is like, directing your attention this way and that way. Buddhists call it “Monkey Mind”, and a great chatterbox it is. Sometimes it even pretends to be the “Voice of God” when it is, in fact, only the Wizard of Oz. That voice is the architect of the Ulro, and it almost never shuts up. It is, moreover, what I sometimes refer to as “the foreign installation”. That voice in your head is the author of your life, and sometimes has the most ridiculous tales to tell. That voice in your head has you completely convinced that it is the true “you”.

Nietzsche, however, put it this way: the real “you” is not what says “I am” but which does “I am”. So, realising what one is implicitly is a matter of silencing that voice. And that’s a great deal more difficult than it seems. The Selfhood has all sorts of cunning and devious devices to defend itself against being silenced. But one can’t claim to be truly master in one’s own house if one can’t turn off that inner monologue at will.

Successfully turning off that inner monologue is what is called “stopping the world” — stopping the wheel of space and time. It is called this because distinctions between now and then, here and there, this and that cease to exist. Without distinctions of now and then, here and there, this and that, time and space simply cease to be. “First there is a mountain. Then there is no mountain. Then there is”. Nothing, in those terms, has what we call “self-nature”, and this is the state sometimes called “emptiness”, or “empty mirror” or “nothingness” or “non-Being” or “non-existence” or “abyss”, “void”, or “silence”. Where time and space cease is called “eternity” or “infinity”. It is formlessness. Awareness is everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.

The ego-consciousness finds that particularly frightening, this loss of form or definition, and calls it “chaos”. “The eternal silence of the infinite void terrifies me”, wrote Pascal, and he fled from the abyss into a particularly dogmatic form of Christianity. “When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after…the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright”. That’s the voice of the ego consciousness. Nietzsche faulted Pascal for seeking sanctuary from that infinity — the abyss — in Christianity as crippling Pascal for any kind of self-transcendence. And, indeed, one only has to compare Pascal’s response to Blake’s, who boldly plunged into those abysses and returned with spiritual treasures.

In fact, Pascal is a beautiful example of the Selfhood grappling with infinity and the unlimited. He conceives of the human as trapped between infinity and nothingness, without apparently realising that infinity and nothingness are the same. They are not two different principles. There is great irony in all this: Pascal, the timid man of faith who refused to go where reason dare not enter, and Blake or Nietzsche, whose bold anti-religious faith that their awareness would not be annihilated by the leap into the abyss contrasts so sharply with Pascal’s lack of faith in that respect. Pascal’s terror of infinity was the fright of the ego consciousness clinging to the human form and fearful of its own deconstruction and annihiliation by the encounter with infinity, who lacked the bold spiritual self-abandon of a Blake or a Nietzsche which made them what they were — free spirits.

What, then, is “faith”? Faith is the deep inner confidence and conviction that the implicit awareness that you are will abide and survive everything and anything, including the inconceivable “leap into the abyss”. The prudent man of reason avoids that as belonging to madness, and in some ways he’s quite right to do so.

Pascal is a fascinating study, in that respect. Very human. I’ll have more to say about the meaning of Pascal later.


7 responses to “On Selfhood”

  1. James Luchte says :

    Along with Wordsworth and others of the period, Blake seems to have been influenced by Spinoza.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I have heard something of that, but haven’t found any reference to Spinoza in Blake.

      But Pascal? Definitely the antithetical type to Blake. Here’s what Pascal has to say of imagination: “Imagination.[48]—It is that deceitful part in man, that mistress of error and falsity, the more deceptive that she is not always so; for she would be an infallible rule of truth, if she were an infallible rule of falsehood. But being most generally false, she gives no sign of her nature, impressing the same character on the true and the false.”

      The Pensees are full of self-contradiction, too. But that makes Pascal all the more interesting as a study of the human ego-consciousness grappling with his “two Infinities”. There’s something quite perverse about it. In Pensee 63, he condemns Montaigne as his antithesis and spiritual enemy, and for being “cowardly” and “effeminate” in the face of death, then adds in Pensee 64

      “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him.”

      So, he’s aware of “projection”, and honest in that respect, at least.

      • James Luchte says :

        By others, I am referring principally to Coleridge. That which is significant in relation to Spinoza’s Tractatus and Ethics is the mortal situation of possessing access to only two attributes among an infinity of attributes; being, and thus temporal existence, as the successive and unsatisfied desire in the modes; and the final acquiescence to ‘God, or Nature’. Such thoughts also influence the early German romantics, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and perhaps, in this light, Pascal. The falsity of imagination is the domain of temporality, of the modes, which are false.

  2. crowdog1 says :

    Very interesting. I love Beckett’s three novels — Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable — for revealing the endless writhing of the voice seeking a way past its own seeking. He really gets the essential slapstick of the thing. Molloy and the Unnameable, in particular, are rip-roaring funny. They are bawdy, delicate, precise, beautiful, self-deprecating and especially self-revealing. They expose the nature of the trap thought sets for itself. The way thought creates a schizophrenic divide between the thinker and the thought, observer and observed, writer and written-about, which is the falseness at the heart of the self, is captured hilariously in the sentences that gymnastically trip over themselves in mental slapstick, like a literary Charlie Chaplan. I forgave myself for being so stupid when I read Beckett. It was love, it was empathy and it was insight.

    He lets us feel the churning, writhing of fight/flight, as it seeks escape from itself, thus creating the very division in consciousness it seeks to close. There’s a hint of satori in this. And for that reason Beckett also strangely reminds me of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Both of them offered no easy outlet in hope or happy endings: They simply exposed the nature of the brain’s wrigglings without distraction in goals or theories or metaphysics or beliefs. Just learning.

    • crowdog1 says :

      I meant that partially in response the “The Waiting Room” and this. I’d forgotten I’d read your Beckett quote in the Waiting Room.

    • Scott Preston says :

      You’ve made me want to read Beckett’s other works. Interesting summary.

      • crowdog1 says :

        The three novels form a progression of sorts. They’re all very funny. But it’s The Unnameable that most directly allows proprioception of the voice. And in a similar vein with what you said regarding the Ulro: the humor and insight of The Unnameable opens only if we don’t deny it, but embrace the thing fully as a way of confronting Samsara. But if people read the Unnameable in a state of resistance or discomfort, then the beauty and implications of the book are lost. I felt I almost had to let the book beat me first into submission. Then the laughter poured out.

        Also, this is a bit tangential, but regarding proprioception — here’s a pretty good foray into that: http://bohmkrishnamurti.com/essays-etc/there-is-no-activism-there-is-only-proprioception-of-thought/

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