The psychologist Carl Jung wrote of the collective unconscious, a source of deep common understanding and knowledge that every person seems to somehow draw from. I've always liked this concept, and I've often thought we could take this further and consider the concept of the collective self. While Jung's collective unconscious is present in our lives as a source of awareness and feeling, the collective self is something else: it's the source of our shared willfulness, our common motivation, our us.
I like to introduce the concept of the collective self into ethical arguments to help explain how human beings can be self-interested and concerned for the well-being of other individuals at the same time. It's often said that we are all motivated primarily by self-interest, but if we examine the goals that truly drive us in our everyday lives, the things that we care about and work hard for, we quickly see that we tend to be motivated not by private benefit but, more often, by public benefit of one kind or another.
Our concern and desire for the well-being of other members of the social groups to which we belong, or the well-being of humanity as a whole, is not a derived element, not a projection of individual self-interest mapped according to utilitarian needs onto others. Rather, our concern and desire for the well-being of numerous collective groups to which we belong is a primary instinct. We care about us. Us, it turns out, is no less a strong glue than me.
Socrates: When you speak of a person desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires?
Socrates: Then do you think some people desire evil and others good? Doesn't everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?
Socrates: And would you say that the others suppose evil to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as evil?
Meno: Both, I should say.
Socrates: What? Do you really think that anyone who recognizes evils for what they are, nevertheless desires them?
Socrates: Desires in what way? To possess them?
Meno: Of course.
Socrates: In the belief that evil things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?
Meno: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.
Socrates: And do you believe that those who suppose evil things bring advantage understand that they are evil?
Meno: No, that I can't really believe.
Socrates: Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil, those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?
Meno: For them I suppose that is true.
Socrates: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring evils in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, those presumably know that they will be injured by them?
Meno: They must.
Socrates: And don't they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?
Meno: That too they must believe.
Socrates: And unfortunate?
Socrates: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?
Meno: I suppose not.
Socrates: Then in not, nobody desires what is evil, for what else is unhappiness but desiring evil things and getting them?
Meno: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is evil.
Socrates: Now you have just said that virtue consists in a wish for good things plus the power to acquire them. In this definition the wish is common to everyone, and in that respect no one is better than his neighbor.
Meno: So it appears.
-- Plato, Meno
Between June 2009 and December 2010, Michael Norris explored Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past, in these pages. Here, with original artwork by David Richardson, is the entire sequence.
Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines
June 16, 2009
Pondering Proust II
September 8, 2009
Pondering Proust III: Guermantes Way
November 16, 2009
This week's scary news of a sudden attack on South Korea by North Korea brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il into the spotlight again. But, all too often the analysis of this dangerous politician's motivation and character takes a quick dive into comic disbelief. "He's a loon." "He's out of his mind." "Kim Jong-Il is a nutjob."
This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.
We love comedy and satire in the United States of America, and we often have fun with the shrill, hysterical personalities of our military opponents. There's nothing wrong with this, unless we allow it to become a dead end for our own knowledge. When it comes to understanding North Korea here in the USA, this seems to have taken place. Kim Jong-Il is a Saturday Night Live skit, and as far as most Americans know, that's all he is.
Is Kim Jong-Il actually crazy? The evidence for this is slight, though his embattled leadership position has probably pushed his sanity towards the edges. However, we don't even have strong information about whether or not Kim Jong-Il is the prime decision-maker within the government, so it may not matter whether he is insane or not. Often in history we have misunderstood our enemy's internal workings. (For instance, during World War II it was generally believed among US and British military strategists that the Prussian military leadership was driving military strategy in Nazi Germany, when in fact this took place within Hitler's Nazi Party, a completely different organization. If we had known this during World War II, we could have helped the Prussian military clique overthrow Hitler, as it was desperately trying to do).
Like the government of every nation in the world, North Korea's is run by some kind of hive mind, and if we don't want to blunder our way through the Korean crisis (the way George W. Bush seemed to blunder through every foreign engagement for eight years) we are going to need to dig a little deeper and try to understand this hive mind. We're going to have to challenge our own intellects a little more.
(As a longtime Ramones fan, I was very moved by Mickey Leigh's memoir about growing up as the younger brother of Joey Ramone, who died tragically of cancer in 2001. The book has just come out in paperback with a new epilogue. I was thrilled to have a chance to ask Mickey Leigh a few questions. -- Levi)
Levi: Though it has a sort of jokey title, I sense that I Slept With Joey Ramone is meant to be a serious entry in the field of punk rock literature, along with many other good books like Rotten by Johnny Rotten, Go Now by Richard Hell, Poison Heart by Dee Dee, Please Kill Me by Legs, the new Just Kids by Patti Smith, even And I Don't Want To Live This Life by Deborah Spungen. Why do you think punk rock has become so literary, or has it always been so?
Last summer I was fortunate enough to visit a remote area of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, hike into Horseshoe Canyon and view ancient rock art, pictographs and petroglyphs, in what is called The Great Gallery. Like many who visit the site I was inspired with a sense of awe and wonder. The title of a painting by Gauguin popped into my mind. It’s one of his Tahitian oils: Where Have We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
In Notes from the Edge Times, Daniel Pinchbeck is on the trail of those same questions. The son of artist Peter Pinchbeck and writer Joyce Johnson, Pinchbeck grew up in New York and became a journalist. His previous books, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, gained him a reputation and following.
Jay-Z puts out one major release every year, most often in November. Usually it's a record, another installment in the lyrical autobiography that has made up his life's work. This year it's a book, Decoded, and Jay showed up at the New York Public Library last night to talk about it.
Decoded rocks a golden Andy Warhol Rorschach image on its front cover, hinting at the psychological self-exploration that has always been Jay-Z's specialty. The book's heft, dramatic packaging and thematic chapter structure indicate a serious work, and a highly deliberate encounter with the literary form. I was hoping to hear Jay talk about his writing process and his literary inspirations at the NYPL, but the onstage interview with Paul Holdengraber and Cornel West was such a high-energy affair that, after an hour and three quarters of intense conversation, we never even got around to that topic.
The last decade has brought a massive infusion of new talent to crime fiction and its sub-genres. Brilliant young writers all over the world are brushing off stale literary conventions and using their formidable skills to write stories in which things actually happen. And with these guys – they’re usually very bad things.
Carrying the torch are James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, and Ken Bruen – the unholy trinity of modern crime. But coming up fast from the shadows is a fierce new breed of gifted writers. They’re bringing a new level of violence and linguistic excellence to the craft and giving life to some of the darkest visions put to paper since Poe was found floating in a Baltimore gutter.
These are the 10 to look out for the next time you’re out after dark:
1. Charlie Huston writes ultra-violent pulp so fluid it cuts out the middleman and projects itself straight to your brainpan in digital HD. Huston always delivers, but the 3-part Henry Thompson series is a great place to start. It starts when Henry, a typical NY bartender with a coulda-been-a-contender story stumbles into the crosshairs of the Russian mob. By the end, he’s a rusty, pill-popping hitman submitting to indentured servitude to keep his parents alive. Along the way, he discovers a knack for killing and leaves a trail of bodies leading to a Grand Guignol finale that kicks like a tweaker on Cops. Warning: Don’t start a Huston book unless you’re ready to forego unessential activities (like bathing and sleeping) for days. His work is best described as paper crack.
"Why the hell do I want to see a movie about Facebook?" a friend said about The Social Network, the new film about the geeky young entrepreneur who created Facebook. "Don't I get enough of it everywhere else?"
That might be the best reason not to see the movie, but it's quite a film, and possibly even a future classic (I bet it will get nominated for a few Academy Awards too). It's a serious movie that revolves around a moral question: what does it mean that everybody's favorite social network was built by an awkward, alienated college student who had lots of trouble making friends?
Those who resent Facebook's intrusion into our common privacy can enjoy some zuckerfreude here, because young Mark Zuckerberg's personality is splayed out in the most unflattering poses -- and yet he remains, in Jesse Eisenberg's deft impersonation, mostly charming and lovable. Unlike many of his fellow nerds who haunt the social circles around Harvard University during the movie's early scenes, skinny nervous Zuckerberg is naive but never quite shy. He has strange reservoirs of confidence, rooted perhaps in his mastery of Linux and Apache. He tries boldly to puzzle out the social codes -- attitude, style -- that lead to popularity on campus. But these are puzzles he can't seem to solve, and he is forced to face this uncomfortable truth repeatedly. The long journey of coding that ends with the creation of Facebook begins in a desultory dorm-room cloud of romantic misery after Zuckerberg's semi-girlfriend unceremoniously dumps him. Thus was Facebook born.
What happens to a close, loving family when one member of the family starts to go insane?
Writers have dealt with this before. Sometimes it's a son or daughter, or a brother or sister, or a father or, as in Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish or Susan Henderson's new novel Up From The Blue, it's a mother. Up From The Blue is narrated, Scout-style, by an inquisitive and charming little girl named Tillie Harris who lives with her taciturn older brother, her stern military father and her unpredictable mother, whose illness is worse than any outsiders could imagine. We discover the parameters of the problem as frightened young Tillie does, cringing as she wishfully tries to solve the problem herself and negotiate her mother back from the edge.