Eyeing the I in the Eidola

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Eidola, the pluralised rendering of ‘eidolon’, are represented in ancient Greek mythological literature as what we commonly regard as phantoms, or apparitions – the spiritualised human form in other words.  These terms derive from ‘eîdos’, a Greek noun loosely translating as ‘a form seen’, yet broaden the meaning to embrace a supernatural element. Ever ubiquitous, humankind’s tales of ghosts, spectres and the like, extend to the animistic beliefs of indigenous tribal peoples, pervade the anthropology of religion, reach back to pre-literate cultures of ancestor worship, and are vividly alive in contemporary media too. In Christian theology, the fundamental reality, or hypostasis, of God, posits the same as existent consubstantially in three forms, one of which is the Holy Ghost. It would appear that eidola persist as a cultural universal, gripping the human mind in faith, awe and fascination.

Personally, I am not keen on being spooked, and the idea of one seeking out such dubious a privilege in film, books or theme parks is as much puzzling as it is anathema to me. This is not merely an inevitable by-product of my advanced years, for I have always eschewed the dubious delights of having my vampire juice flooded with neutrophilic leukocytes, or my sympathetic nervous system haunted by cloaked and shadowy adrenergic receptors – whatever those may be. Such beleaguering goings-on occur irrespective of my clammy-handed protestations, and much as I may bid to reassure the conscious self of the actuality of the situation, show me Regan’s swiveling head and the shivers start up unfailingly. Something odd is going on, as if there were a doppelgänger here; the one being self-possessed, reasoned and conscious, the other irrational, perturbable and asleep at the wheel.

Which is the essential me, the conscious rationalist, or the closeted and timorous absurdist? Still, in presupposing some enduring quintessence of selfhood within or about me, I unwittingly invoke an eidolon, a form seen in mind’s eye yet vaporously at best instantiated; a mind-blown ectoplasmic doppelgänger whose existence pervades my substance and reflectively conscious psyche, which itself is but partial, fleetingly present, a mere fluxing bundle of perceptual imagery alone – a Humean human, inhabited and haunted by a spectral homunculus.  In short, I too am a myth of sorts, a narrative of my own insignificant little odyssey. And yet I exist, so whilst excusing, if you will, the peccadillo of the double negative, I am not nothing. Selfless in the strictest sense, am I more than embodied characterisation, a spectre idling along in its dramaturgical existence, an empty ghost actor?

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Surely the eidolic invocation of self cannot be the primary evidence of my truest being; nor is my social construct consistently self-like, as it morphs from one encounter to the next. My physical presence fails the criteria too, for it changes and is subject to programmed cell death, or apoptosis, and the body is a cellular formation. As an adult, up to seventy billion cells die within me each day, so I am separated from my own cells at an astonishing rate. One minute they constitute what I am as an alive being, and the next they are dead, decaying within me and awaiting scavenging by white blood cells which smell their death. Am I somehow separate from the dead cells yet identical with any alive ones? No, they both are part of what I am, which is neither entirely alive nor dead, not inside or outside any self, part eidolon and part matter, not nothing, and yet for a while, an indefinite something.

Glib theories abound, yet which of them withstands scrutiny; which do not devolve to fanciful thinking at base? It seems implausibly dismissive to hold that consciousness does not exist so requires little accounting for – the view of Eliminative Materialism. And similarly so to assert that consciousness and transcendental idea alone are what I am; or otherwise to call forth the ineffable and regard myself as some play of Lila or Godhead. No, undeniably there is awareness illuminating all consciously apprehended phenomena, and there is this heaving heap of cells coming and going too, albeit only in loose aggregation. In all, some tight-woven interplay of mind and matter, a body subjected to endless sense impressions, a mind-created eidolon which spooks whilst affirming itself. And at times, a unified multiplicity prevails, a seamless non-localisation in which I as subject recede, give way, dissolve.

Phenomenologists, most notably Edmund Husserl, have in the past century proposed rigorous mind-analyses for disposing of eidola in contemplatively reductionist ways, echoing the ‘via negativa’ of Vipassana Buddhism and later Indian Advaita/ Natha doctrines, Greek Pyrrhonism, Epistemological Fallibilism, Maimonides’ negative Judaism, with correlates to the apophatic mysticism of Islam and Christianity. So too are there dubious quick-fix, pick ‘n mix bags admissible to the jaded, post-modernist mindset, they being largely corruptions of classical doctrines. All are attempts at debunking the mythological self and god by rejecting falsity; though curiously none state what persists thereafter. Elusive yet obvious when seen, eyeing the I in the eidola is unsusceptible to perceptual capture. Known by and as itself alone, it remains present to all awareness, ever thus, subtle, profound, not a myth.

 

Tartuffe

Molière by Pièrre Mignard. Photography: Jebulon, Paris

Molière by Pièrre Mignard. Photography: Jebulon, Paris

In 1664, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière as he was better known by his stage name, wrote a theatrical comedy which dealt with the themes of hypocrisy and charlatanism. In 1984, I had the pleasure of watching Anthony Sher perform the lead role, which he did with his customary brilliance and panache. Had I been alive when Tartuffe was written, I would have had little opportunity to see the play before King Louis XIV censored it – a state in which the play remained for a further five years.

So convinced was he that the play drew parallels between religious devotion and those unsavoury traits just previously mentioned – the apparent links between vice and virtue – that at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Paris, the king forbade all further performances of Tartuffe under threats of excommunication from the Catholic Church. Interestingly, the king did not ban private performances for the French aristocracy. The privileged, as we all know, are immune from hypocrisy.

So this article is about similar associations to those epitomised so dazzlingly well on that night I watched enthralled by Mr. Sher’s depiction of the impostor Tartuffe. I have chosen to do this as there are so many such charlatans around today in the world of spiritual endeavour. Much of this terrain has been commoditized, and with but a tenth of Mr. Sher’s dramaturgical capacity, the deluded spiritual pedagogue, armed with all the right words, makes for themselves a semblance of a living.

Tartuffe. 1739 English Edition

One need not turn professional though, for one may just as well dwell in the amateur dramatics of one’s own social circles, and there too give vent to a spiritual hypocrisy. The phenomenon of holier-than-thou-ness, or the feigned physiognomy of the supposed spiritual visionary, may at times be seen portrayed in the congregations of our local churches, yoga studios and meditation halls. So from what psychological tendencies do such spiritual hypocrisies derive, beyond any egocentric imperatives?

Here, we enter the enchanting world of self-deception, in which the psyche’s hall of mirrors may succeed not only in hoodwinking its own self-construct, but possibly the uninformed observer too. The process subsists in post-hoc fabrications of the mind which lend credence to the adoption of assumptions as to our spiritual progress. The desperation to receive a pay-off for our devotion and practices, leads us to fabricate pseudo-evidence that serves to satiate this otherwise oppressive need.

The whole of this construct is perpetuated and sustained by means of what psychologists call ‘confirmation biases’. Here, the deluded spiritual aspirant interprets experience falsely in an unconscious bid to support both their wishes and any imagined signposts as to their state of advancement. Further, there’s an overt pursuance of what could be, though seldom is, evidence as to the level of their insight or knowledge, the entirety of the biasing being held in all such spurious validations.

This is far from being a universal situation, and many aspirants with humility content themselves in the knowledge that devotion and endless hours of practice may only find reward in realms beyond their ken, or perhaps at best, in brief glimpses of self transcendence. In such a person, the balance of accumulated knowledge leads to the recognition that truth has a sliding floor, and that to seize upon this or that experience as indicative of spiritual terra firma is simply desire hedging its bets again.

Returning to those cleaving to a station not rightfully inherited, she or he will face their comeuppance in time should the biases persist unabated. Wisdom prevails in a tremor of the psyche, the floor slides, and though a freefalling is sensed, in fact a higher ground is reached. The alternative, if pursued in defiance of gravity, makes of the seeker another in the mould of Tartuffe – a hypocritical imposter, an ass of a charlatan. And just as with Molière’s creation, the ass must be revealed.

The disease of conceit

Old Woman Smiling. As yet unattributed.

I’ve taken the title for this article from a song of Bob Dylan’s; and the inspiration to cover the topic in the way that I’ve chosen to came from a couple of the song’s lines: ‘Conceit is a disease that the doctors got no cure; they’ve done a lot of research on it but what it is, they’re still not sure’. As Bob himself might say, ‘Sump’ns up; ain’t a lot clear though.’

I confess that I’m rather a stickler for words and their origins; so let’s first unravel what’s intimated by this word ‘conceit’. Within the context of the song, it’s shorthand for ‘self-conceit’; and as The Oxford English Dictionary has it, it’s ‘excessive pride in oneself.’ The original sense is of a ‘quaintly decorative article’, as well as ‘something formed in the mind’.

Still, we can see why the medics are struggling to cure this fanciful product of thinking. How does ‘excessive pride’ come to be ingrained within what is taken to be substantively real – the ‘me’ of ‘my’ being – and not remain as ‘something formed in the mind’? The pride is more than a judgement about ‘me’; it’s effectively regarded as what I am.

The answer is that the conceit which issues as excessive pride is self-referenced; it’s taken to be an integral aspect of a substantively real ‘self’. In this way, the notion formed in the mind becomes integrated within a narrative construct of selfhood. This narrative is synonymous with what I think I am as an enduring agent for, and subject of, all experience.

Put simply, we’re fictionalising our life and being, as a result of which process we become a ‘quaintly decorative article’. As this fiction is internal to the mind, it accesses cognitive capacities and so knows itself – it’s egoically aware. The self-narrative then embeds as belief; it’s taken as the self of ‘me’ and from which perspective it reflectively admires itself.

This is the disease of conceit; and it’s caused by mechanisms which remain opaque precisely because of this circular, self-reflective cognising. It’s largely a closed system which, to the extent that it’s monitored at all, is no more than two mirrors reflecting each the other. It comprehends itself only within its own very partial design parameters.

Whenever uncomfortable feelings arise and which affect the ‘quaintly decorative article’, this same entity attempts to modify its own construct. It builds upon its own foundation various justifications, validations and affirmations. It protects its own existence at all costs, taking any measure necessary to do so. It never considers its own destruction as a remedy.

And yet why should this be so; how could it possibly affect matters if ‘something formed in the mind’ ceased to exist? After all, the mind, together with all of its connections to sentience, to memory, to creativity and so forth, would remain. We could still function, love, care, and continue to experience the world without this fanciful, thought-up thing.

Just as we tend to consider ourselves indispensable in our working role, so too does the self-construct regard itself in this way. We assume our job position can only effectively be fulfilled by ‘me’ doing it ‘my’ way. And because the self-construct was originally a survival imperative, it continues to regard itself as such and so never considers its redundancy.

This construct, this ‘thing formed in the mind’, has created a total dependency upon itself in regarding the entirety of experience and action to be of its own doing. It thinks it’s a constant subject which via its agency alone can the world be known, and any response to that world, be made. No wonder it thinks it’s special and that it must be preserved.

Any preservation requires work though; the imagined subject of ‘me’ is rather needy and wants assurances of its status. If these assurances don’t come from others, it creates its own in applying little affirmations of conceit to itself. Interestingly, these affirmations can take both a negative and positive form dependent on the individual’s innate character traits.

So perversely, the ‘quaintly decorative article’ can appear charming to itself in terms of its own perceived deficiencies. It can build into its narrative what to it is an alluring sense of inadequacy in which it feels secure by virtue of flaw and frailty. Conceit cuts both ways; it isn’t just about ‘me’ being ‘better than’; it can also encompass being ‘worse than’.

The person who continuously stresses to all those around them of their uselessness or stupidity, or of their noteworthy capacity to suffer, is conceited too. They’re placing a perverse and certain pride in the uniqueness of their inadequacy or burden. In this way, they set themselves apart from others just as much as the boastful egotist.

So we decorate ourselves with one or other of these two modes of conceit; we’re prideful in either a negative or positive sense – it doesn’t matter which; it’s still a disease. Any remedy is beyond the power of the physician; the mind carrying the disease must administer the cure. Of course, as with any health issue, we first must observe our symptoms.

 

A friend seeks contentment the hard way

Photo: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was born into an assured middle class comfort, a guarantee of a private education and career to follow. His future classmates would go on to become cabinet ministers in government, bankers and CEO’s. A few became artists with no real need even to sell their work. Like him, their future would be cushioned with inheritances, trust funds, contacts.

By his mid-teens, these privileges had begun to jar with his sense of individuality. He felt he was being led along a path of someone else’s choosing – his father, his teachers, what used to be called ‘the establishment’. There was a feeling of an enforced cronyism which he felt deeply reluctant to conform to. So he decided he had to rebel.

And what does a privately educated, rebellious British schoolboy do in the 1960’s? – he becomes a communist. Attaching to an ideology which fed his youthful contrarianism made him feel he was charting his own course in life. He was wrong-footed by the Czech invasion, but his thinking was by then set. He would be a grafting wage-earner.

Being both an idealist and a romantic, he set sail for Ireland where he would sell his labour working on a travelling fair. Never quite feeling accepted and a little hurt for all that, he returned to England, toiling shifts in factories. His political ideology became more sophisticated. He cultivated the speech of his co-workers. But he was still a posh boy.

And he couldn’t shake it off. There was an irrepressible haughtiness to him, still that exaggerated springing gait that his kind affected during their elite schooling. Still he fought it; still he believed that only by conforming to his absurdly fake self-image would he find contentment and feel comfortable in himself. He sought authenticity in play-acting.

‘Why do I always seem to provoke people? No matter how hard I try to befriend them, they always end up wanting to attack me in some way’. I had to be honest; it was a sincere question from a very dear old friend. I told him it was his fake image that was being attacked. Hard as he tried, people saw right through the pretence; they were offended by it.

Of course, we all have a self-image that we nurture and project. In that sense, my friend was only doing what we all do. We inhabit a narrative of our personal identity, an epic tale of what and who we are. We cling to this so dearly such that it becomes embedded as belief – we believe the story correlates to reality. And if we believe it, why shouldn’t others?

This on-going narration is largely responsible for sustaining our sense of selfhood. We keep the thing knitted together with the flow of our thoughts and perceptions, and all that those mental phenomena give rise to in action. Along with our bodily feelings, our running analysis of our situation and our undeniable sense of being, this narration feeds the self.

But this sense of self is not identical to our authentic being; it doesn’t correlate to the actuality of our being. It is, for the most part, merely this mental creation of the narrative. We can manipulate the narrative as much as we like, we can be as extreme as my friend and fabricate a new story; but it’ll never authentically disclose our being to itself or to others.

There was nothing wrong with being born into privilege. My friend had no need to disown all that entailed. It’s incredibly hard work fictionalising a life. It took my friend most of his adulthood to realise the futility of attempting this. All the while, he believed his authentic self truly was a fairground worker, a night-shift operator, a revolutionary.

He exhausted himself in attempting to inhabit these fake identities. He offended and disturbed so many people in his clumsy, transparent masquerading. And when people were provoked into attacking him in some way because of it, he tried even harder to deceive by manipulating the attackers’ own feelings. This cleverness only made matters worse.

Our authentic identity isn’t a narrative creation. It doesn’t need working at with story-telling and charades. We don’t need to create an acceptable self to project to the world, let alone an unacceptable one. Such manipulations are only ever mutations of inauthentic selfhood in any case. In seeing through this great deception, our authenticity is realised.