Preliminary Notes on the Riddle of Self in Lilith, Part V

We have, then, a simple, direct motion of the will by which the self grounds itself, or chooses to be grounded in, the power that established it–its causing life, as MacDonald would say. We could characterize it simply as obedience to the command, “You shall love the Lord you God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Equivalently, we could think of it in terms of Kierkegaard’s statement, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” Alternatively, Kierkegaard defines this motion as faith. It is clearly faith in a very active sense as entrusting–the active and continuous entrusting of our whole being to God. As it is the unreserved and total willing of our whole being to God, we can, along with some of the great Catholic spiritual writers, describe it as abandonment. Since the absorption of the human will in God’s leaves no room for preferential judgment of our circumstances, this state has also been called indifference. Since it is a forfeiture of self-knowledge mediated by self, it can be called death to self. As the complete offering of our being to God after the pattern of Jesus, it has been called crucifixion with Christ. Equivalently, as we in this motion are both the priest who offers and the sacrifice that is offered, it has been called consecration.

We notice that many of these figures are highly active, whereas the figure used in Lilith, that of sleep, is essentially passive. In the story, however, it is to be embraced actively–one must go to sleep outright and heartily, leaving aside fear and welcoming what is to come. It is the plunge, the leap into infinity, abandonment to the waiting arms of the Father. In the “dreams that come”, we see the self both drinking in from the Source of Being and receiving healing of its hurts, and also as involved in purgatorially framed action:

“Then, of a sudden, but not once troubling my conscious bliss, all the wrongs I had ever done, from far beyond my earthly memory down to the present moment, were with me. Fully in every wrong lived the conscious I, confessing, abjuring, lamenting the dead, making atonement with each person I had injured, hurt, or offended. Every human soul to which I had caused a troubled thought, was now grown unspeakably dear to me, and I humbled myself before it, agonising to cast from between us the clinging offence. I wept at the feet of the mother whose commands I had slighted; with bitter shame I confessed to my father that I had told him two lies, and long forgotten them: now for long had remembered them, and kept them in memory to crush at last at his feet. I was the eager slave of all whom I had thus or anyhow wronged. Countless services I devised to render them! For this one I would build such a house as had never grown from the ground! for that one I would train such horses as had never yet been seen in any world! For a third I would make such a garden as had never bloomed, haunted with still pools, and alive with running waters! I would write songs to make their hearts swell, and tales to make them glow! I would turn the forces of the world into such channels of invention as to make them laugh with the joy of wonder! Love possessed me! Love was my life! Love was to me, as to him that made me, all in all!” (Chapter XLIV, “The Dreams that Came”)

Not all of Vane’s dreams are pleasant: some are “dark night of the soul” experiences in which he dreams of being completely alone and abandoned. Still, he is to go through the experiences with simple trust. We could quite possibly see the function of these dreams in terms of Kierkegaard’s idea of the backward undoing of despair, with the consequent progressive restoration of selfhood. Once this process is completely carried through, the work of death is done:

“Have we to die again?” I asked.

“No,” he answered, with a smile like the Mother’s; “you have died into life, and will die no more; you have only to keep dead. Once dying as we die here, all the dying is over. Now you have only to live, and that you must, with all your blessed might.”

Selfhood that is grounded transparently in its origin is ready for action. It is at home, and can go in and out at its pleasure, going into the treasure house of Being, and going out to bring blessedness into the world. It is now capable of authentic action, of the kind described in Gerard Manly Hopkins’s poem, “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This is freedom: to be yourself, to live “with all your blessed might.” It is the highest creative self-expression. Why is it achievable only on the other side of this death?

The riddle posed by our individual existence has something to do with this seemingly indirect path to selfhood. On the one hand, there is a categorical imperative laid upon us to be, to be an individual, to be a spirit, as Kierkegaard says, to realize, actualize our being. On the other hand, when we first become aware of ourselves as individuals, it is to feel that we are “away from home”, unknown to ourselves and isolated from the world of experience, “an unknown I in an unknown world.” Furthermore, our direct attempts to define who we are do not yield authentic results. There is a disorder, a chaos in our inner world that we find it impossible to rule as we will, to reduce to meaning. The absurd, the incommensurate, confronts us around every corner. We become even more deeply a riddle to ourselves, in that we become a contradiction. On the one hand, we find ourselves built on a massive, a godlike scale. Our potentiality seems unlimited. On the other hand, the moment that we try to realize this greatness, we become aware of an undeniable pettiness and squalor that surfaces in our thoughts, desires, and emotions. Where does this come from, and why is the kind of death we have been describing the answer to the riddle of self?

We could, with many theological writers, immediately bring in the notion of sin here. That might prevent us, however, from getting a clear picture of the existential necessities at work. The paradox of self is that self is self-knowledge, and, notwithstanding, we are unable to know ourselves directly, by regarding ourselves. What happens appears to be something like the popular description of phenomenon in quantum mechanics, that observation changes the system observed, forces it to a determinacy which it should not arrive at in this way. The more that self regards itself, the more unreal it becomes, and unable to distinguish which of its potentialities are actual. It cannot experience its knowledge of itself as good; it cannot be a good thing to itself. It can experience pleasure and enjoyment in the knowledge of its glorious potentialities, but if it actively engages in this, it lays itself open to fierce disappointment and gnawing humiliation at the equally likely presentation of its pettiness and squalor. This is the start of the disease of despair that Kierkegaard describes. The vision of ourselves as ugly is untenable; no one can abide there indefinitely. There are only three avenues available. The self can gnaw itself in the vain attempt to consume itself, sinking into self-destructive behavior and suicide. The self can seek to cover up or conceal itself from itself by vacating the spiritual and self-reflective part of its being and confine itself to the immediate sensory and social environment (the bestial option). Lastly, the self can determine that it will enjoy the knowledge of itself as glorious by any means necessary (the demonic option).

Why can’t the self simply realize what it wants to be (the way in which it wants to know itself) by appropriate action that will define it in that way, and banish what it does not want to be (the way in which it does not want to know itself) by starving it of any expression in action? If it is above all our actions that make us the self that we are, that give actuality to our nature, then why isn’t human life as simple as choosing what we want to be and acting it out? All sin appears to be self-sabotage, in that it makes us more what we do not want to be. Surely we do not engage in counterproductive behavior for no reason! One possible way of accounting for this could lie in the conjunction of the ferocity of our need to experience ourselves as a good thing, and that it is not necessary for the experience of self-enjoyment that the potentialities we admire in ourselves be actual, realized in action: to appear to be is enough to give pleasure, and it far easier than to be. We are caught in an exigency, with a hard way and an easy way out both before us: is it any wonder that we almost universally choose the easy way?

We have to qualify the ideas of hardness and easiness here. In truth, people spend enormous energy, Herculean labor, to “keep up appearances”. When we contrast this with the effortless life of the childlike, God-abandoned soul, we may wonder if we have the designations of “hard” and “easy” completely backward after all. Yet it is undeniable that the simple motion of being is appallingly difficult to face, and to begin. Blessed are those who are already accustomed to it! In its expenditure of energy, in its annihilating sharpness, its cost is too high for all but the truly wise, whether they have purchased that wisdom at five years of age, or eighty-five.

Why is this? In his sermon “The Hardness of the Way”, MacDonald writes:

“It always was, always will be, hard to enter into the kingdom of heaven. It is hard even to believe that one must be born from above—must pass into a new and unknown consciousness. The law-faithful Jew, the ceremonial Christian, shrinks from the self-annihilation, the Life of grace and truth, the upper air of heavenly delight, the all-embracing love that fills the law full and sets it aside. They cannot accept a condition of being as in itself eternal life. And hard to believe in, this life, this kingdom of God, this simplicity of absolute existence, is hard to enter. How hard? As hard as the Master of salvation could find words to express the hardness: ‘If any man cometh unto me, and hateth not …. his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.’”

The choice of being over seeming, what MacDonald calls “this simplicity of absolute existence”, is wrenching for anyone, all the more wrenching for those whose castle of appearances is more successful. Why is this? Why is it so very hard to be? It is because to be, in the authentic sense, is to choose to be who we are, to choose our own nature–that is, to choose to be sons and daughters of God.

There is here no way around using some kind of language for human nature, for an essential nature we possess from the first of existence. I would argue that Lilith is an existentialist masterwork–but this is not true if we limit the label “existentialist” to those philosophers who believe that existence precedes essence, that there is no essential human nature, but only what the individual constructs. Of course, since “existentialism” is only a label, we are not really losing anything by the loss of it, but I think it is more just to use the label more broadly to apply to philosophical thought that especially concerns itself with the appalling seriousness of the individual’s personal responsibility to construct an authentic existence. In this sense, of course, Kierkegaard is an existentialist, and so is Nietzsche, and so, I would argue, is MacDonald. In this sense, it is possible to be an existentialist and to believe that the human being has an essential nature, and it is this that he must realize. It is hard to know exactly what Nietzsche meant by his imperative, “Become who you are!” There is much that is contradictory in Nietzsche, as there must be in anyone who, as Kierkegaard would describe, has so completely allowed their self-concept to pass over into the realm of fantasy. But it is completely clear how George MacDonald would interpret these words, and it is this in fact which he regards as the human imperative. It is, “Become who you are in God’s eyes, in his eternal thought of you!” this is the (Christian) Platonist side of his thought. And we cannot apologize for it, or try to mitigate its necessity. In Kierkegaard’s simple formulation:

“Such a relation, which relates to itself, a self, must either have established itself or been established by something else.”

The self either created itself, or it did not. If it did not, then its primary relation, above even its relation to itself, is to its source. Thus there is no authentic act of being except in relating the self to its source; relating the created to the creative life. It is only in relation to this causing self that we can be said to do anything, to give birth to anything real. Any action not undertaken with reference to the informing self of our selves is in the realm of seeming; it cannot be authentic. We cannot actuate anything solid, anything that can be called a good, except by direct participation in the eternal creative life. Even “emptying an egg” is an empty accomplishment if it is not in reference to this meaning-giving Life. That is why Paul says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” and, “Whatever is not of faith is sin.”

That is why the “good death” is the answer to the riddle of our individual existence. To begin to be, to be real, to be actual, necessarily involves the motion by which we choose to be who we are, by grounding our being transparently in its source. That is being; that is the source of all authentic and self-definitive action. When we have learned this lesson completely, then indeed all that is left is to live “with all our blessed might”.

The more you live, the stronger you become to live.”

“But shall I not grow weary with living so strong?” I said. “What if I cease to live with all my might?”

“It needs but the will, and the strength is there!” said the Mother. “Pure life has no weakness to grow weary withal. The Life keeps generating ours.

It is strange that such a glorious existence can be called being dead, or that the process toward it can be called death. The reason we do so is no doubt in part because almost all of us have already been living in the state of despair, in an illusion-maintaining mode. To stop doing this is to die to the illusion-maintaining mode of life, to life in despair–to cease from it. MacDonald, however, goes so far as to use the language of death even in regard to the eternal existence of the Son with the Father before all worlds:

“This choice of his own being, in the full knowledge of what he did; this active willing to be the Son of the Father, perfect in obedience—is that in Jesus which responds and corresponds to the self-existence of God. Jesus rose at once to the height of his being, set himself down on the throne of his nature, in the act of subjecting himself to the will of the Father as his only good, the only reason of his existence. When he died on the cross, he did that, in the wild weather of his outlying provinces in the torture of the body of his revelation, which he had done at home in glory and gladness. From the infinite beginning—for here I can speak only by contradictions-he completed and held fast the eternal circle of his existence in saying, ‘Thy will, not mine, be done!’ He made himself what he is by deathing himself into the will of the eternal Father, through which will he was the eternal Son—thus plunging into the fountain of his own life, the everlasting Fatherhood, and taking the Godhead of the Son. This is the life that was made in Jesus: ‘That which was made in him was life.’” (“The Creation in Christ”, emphasis original)

This is of course exactly what is necessary for each of us as individual human beings. It is the human life, the only possible one:

“This life, self-willed in Jesus, is the one thing that makes such life—the eternal life, the true life, possible—nay, imperative, essential, to every man, woman, and child, whom the Father has sent into the outer, that he may go back into the inner world, his heart. As the self-existent life of the Father has given us being, so the willed devotion of Jesus is his power to give us eternal life like his own—to enable us to do the same. There is no life for any man, other than the same kind that Jesus has; his disciple must live by the same absolute devotion of his will to the Father’s; then is his life one with the life of the Father.

“Because we are come out of the divine nature, which chooses to be divine, we must choose to be divine, to be of God, to be one with God, loving and living as he loves and lives, and so be partakers of the divine nature, or we perish. Man cannot originate this life; it must be shown him, and he must choose it.”

To be in the authentic sense is to choose to be who we are, which is done in this motion of absolute devotion. As Kierkegaard again contends, the individual has an absolute relationship to the absolute. Those who live wholly in it are the sons and daughters of God, the heirs of the universe, glorious and godlike, absolutely free. To misunderstand freedom, to understand it in any way but this, is to be a slave. This is the great downfall of existentialism in the style of Sartre. Its preoccupation is freedom, but its exponents are not free. The ideas have a semblance of nobility; but the human beings who profess them are not noble. If we have no nature, then there is indeed no limit to what we can choose to be. We can call this freedom–but can we live free lives? Our ontology, the way in which we came into existence, will come back to bite us, no matter how we evade it. As MacDonald says:

“To live without the eternal creative life is an impossibility; freedom from God can only mean an incapacity for seeing the facts of existence….” (“Freedom”)

And again, trenchantly, as if he were speaking directly to those who contend that “existence precedes essence”:

“Of divine essence, they thrust their existence in the face of their essence, their own nature.”

Kierkegaard mercilessly exposes this attitude as living in despair. In Lilith, it is characterized as the refusal to die:

“Those who will not die, die many times, die constantly, keep dying deeper, never have done dying.” (Chapter XLIV, “The Waking”)

This is the second of the two forms of death that affect the eternal part of the person. It is the living death, despair, the corruptive death. To this we must now turn our attention.

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