Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Fortress of Self-Esteem

A hermenuetical philosophy...will try to get as close as possible to the most originary expressions of a community of faith, to those expressions through which the members of this community have interpreted their experience for the sake of themselves or for others' sake.--Paul Ricouer

Experience, of course, is the last refuge of our society. Experience is personal, and not be gainsaid. Experience is individual, and not to be examined by another. Except, of course, every community of faith interprets its experience for the sake both of the community, and its members, and for other communities it encounters.

"Community of faith" seems to refer, in some sense, to a community religious; but it needn't. "Faith" may be the conviction in things unseen, but "things unseen" is not limited to deities. Who has seen the law? And yet the "social contract" requires that we have faith in its workings. Precisely the problem, of course, encountered under the present Administration: there, faith is only in power, and the exertion of force. But without faith in the law, there is no governance: only tyranny, the rule of strength constantly applied. So faith is not the sole substance and realm of "religion."

Nor is experience mine or yours, alone. We are not born with experiences, nor are we born knowing how to interpret them. There are origins to the frameworks we give our experience; some old, some new.

In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh uses a family and an individual to illustrate changes both within individual souls, and within societies. Waugh describes a scene aboard an ocean liner just before the outbreak of World War II, a change indicative of the shifting of tectonic plates. The narrator, Charles Ryder, is travelling on a luxury liner, and when asked by the waiter for a drink preference in the bar, asks for whisky with un-iced water. Unfortunately for Mr. Ryder's taste, as the ship has set out from America, all the water is iced. The waiter then brings him two pots: one of ice water, one of boiling water, which Ryder mixes to the acceptable temperature. "He watched and said: 'I'll remember that's how you take it, sir.' Most passengers had fads [Ryder observes]; he was paid to fortify their self-esteem."

A small point, but in the context of the story, a telling one. The family of Castle Brideshead has no problem with "self-esteem." The head of the family is the Marquis of Marchmain. His eldest son is Lord Brideshead. The family claim to the land around the castle, and to the privileges of the British upper class, go back for centuries. Theirs is a title built on money and acquisition from long ago. Indeed, the class that gauges its standing by what it owns and what it spends is represented in another character in the story, and not at all in an agreeable light. But the shif it plain. Here we get to see an originary expression, almost the birth of the "modern age." Having no historical or embedded claim to praise and approbation, but being hungry for it, we who come after the collapse of absolute authority of the "titled class" trick out our self-esteem based on our money and our most recent acquisition. And we have to be reminded, as often as possible, of how special an individual we are.

But is that experience particular, or social? Is that interpretation of what is important, most especially what is important to us, personal? Or is it provided? Are the origins of what we think and know embedded in truth? Or in what makes us comfortable? Ore our personal experiences really, in the end, so originary? Do we really keep them to ourselves, or do we inevitably interpret them for the sake of others, too? We interpret even our personal experiences through the expression of others. But where do those expressions originate?

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