Both the religiously inclined and secular types strive to acquire a splendid false self. Between the two groups, the terminology may differ, but the game remains the same.
The case of C. S. Lewis reveals that the desire for a splendid false self leads to self-alienation. (Photo: public domain)
English author and academic C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) experienced a sudden religious conversion while still a young man. He went on to become one of the 20th century’s best-known religious writers at a time when faith – in Europe, at least – was decidedly on the wane. Whatever one might say about his beliefs, Lewis is a superb example of how a skilled writer can win a following and find substantial success by going against the dominant trend. Conservative writers take note.
Austrian doctor and pioneering psychotherapist Alfred Adler made the inferiority complex central to his thinking. He believed that, “When the individual does not find a proper concrete goal of superiority, an inferiority complex results. The inferiority complex leads to a desire for escape and this desire for escape is expressed in a superiority complex, which is nothing more than a goal on the useless and vain side of life offering the satisfaction of false success.”
Pioneering psychotherapist Alfred Adler recognized our innate need to feel superior in some legitimate way. (Photo: public domain)
Adler’s “concrete goal of superiority” is a shorthand way of describing the authentic struggle for self-discovery and self-realization, which always plays out as a determined quest for various life goals. Failure to pursue self-realization (what life is all about) results in self-alienation. I can personally testify that this mental state does lead inevitably to feelings of gross inadequacy and inferiority. These negative feelings in turn prompt the formation of a monstrous vain and supercilious false persona, Adler’s “goal on the useless and vain side of life offering the satisfaction of false success.” Builders of false personas chase ego-enhancing goals with little in the way of usefulness, substance, or relevance to their authentic selves. Empty flash and glitter triumph over meaningfulness and emotional gratification.
Simone de Beauvoir believed that, “The programme laid down in our childhood allows us to do, know, and love only a limited number of things; when the programme is fulfilled and when we have come to the end of our possibilities, then death is accepted with indifference or even as a merciful release – it delivers us from that extreme boredom that the ancients called satietas vitae.” The notion that our childhood defines us is sound. Our genes (character, behaviour) interact with our environment, we form a sense of how the world works, and we build a set of values. The development of this unique set of emotionally important ideas lays down the foundation of what will or will not motivate us as adults.
Simone de Beauvoir thought our lives are programmed in childhood with a limited set of possibilities. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Like all those who place the ego’s false persona before all else, Simone De Beauvoir struggled mightily with the reality of death. She writes of “the scandal of finiteness,” referring to our inescapable mortality. When you insist on emphasizing your separateness and see yourself as merely an isolated conscious ego, it becomes inevitable that fear of the permanent extinction of consciousness — occasioned by physical death — will threaten your peace of mind. Death can become something of a preoccupation.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre wanted more from life than it could give. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The real scandal here is de Beauvoir’s way of ignoring the bigger picture — the immortality of the human race, which transcends individual mortality. Unfortunately, for those locked into believing they are merely a self-made false persona, only the individual counts. They never look beyond the boundaries of self-absorption and never seem to learn that such selfishness comes at a terrible price. Placing too much emphasis on maintaining a false image is a massive source of anxiety. The chronic angst generated by the necessity of maintaining and defending an idealized false persona is confused with fear of death and labelled existential angst. However, it is the dread of humiliation and exposure as a fraud that really drives this kind of continuing anxiety. The more-immediate fear is the death of the false persona.
When reading literary biographies, one is wise to examine the worldview of the biographer as well as that of the subject. In his superb George Orwell: A Life, biographer Bernard Crick says a lot of perceptive things about Orwell, and while doing so, inadvertently illuminates humankind’s chronic problems with the discrepancy between the false persona we create to impress the world and the authentic self that we truly are.
George Orwell was driven hard by what one biographer has called his “Puritan daemon.” (Image: BBC)
English literary critic Cyril Connolly lays out the ground of the conflict. He saw George Orwell as standing for independence and offering intelligence as an alternative to character. This view draws a sharp distinction between authenticity (character) and the intellect (ego and its attendant false persona). The idea that one can dispense with character or submerge it beneath intelligence is dubious to say the least, but such thinking reveals the way ego prefers the false persona, identifies with it, and hopes to shield genuine behaviour from view. The intellectual often presents himself as a paragon of moral virtue.
Fear of death is mostly dread of the permanent loss of conscious awareness. We see that expiration, the snuffing out of the light, as the final irrevocable end of who we are, the irremediable dissolution of our identity. However, our consciousness is not who we are – it is only our way of knowing who we are. We prove this every night when we sleep and consciousness dissolves, only to magically reappear the next day. If consciousness is who we are, how do we survive this regular extinction? We survive because the self is who we really are.
Tradition can ease the fear of death by overcoming social- and self-alienation and providing assurance that some part of us will live on. (Image: wpclipart.com)
The self lives in the unconscious and the unconscious never sleeps. Picture it as a well-furnished room. We store our memories there. Consciousness is the light that enables us to see and know them. Switch off the light – as in sleep – and the furnished room remains, and we see it once more when consciousness, the light, returns.
In 1963, at the age of thirty, the brilliant American poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide in her London flat leaving behind two small children. She had suffered from depression since her early twenties and showed signs of considerable mental instability throughout most of her life. Some of her psychological difficulties arose from the death of her father when she was just eight, but feminism undoubtedly played a significant role in her untimely demise.
Feminism may have played a role in Sylvia Plath’s chronic psychological difficulties. She felt oppressed by white men, especially her dead father. (Image: public domain)
Plath’s liberal use of her sharp tongue suggests serious trouble with an inner tyrant critic. Those who lash out at others are usually just as hard – or harder – on themselves. A prolonged habit of ruthless self-criticism leads to self-alienation. This would go a long way towards explaining her eager embracing of feminism, a belief system that would allow her to project both her rejected authentic self and her inner tyrant critic onto conveniently available (specifically) white males. If being so selective sounds farfetched, it is worth noting that Plath (who was Caucasian) identified with Jews, African Americans, and Orientals. Clearly, she believed herself to be the object of some kind of discrimination.
Inner emptiness, the inability to tolerate being alone are symptomatic of a lack of self-knowledge, a poorly defined sense of self. Sufferers often describe the chronic condition as a feeling of loneliness. People with this problem usually have a desperate need for the regard and affection of others, said regard and affection providing the means to ward off, or at least ameliorate, painful self-dislike. Since they cannot accept themselves, they have a powerful need to forget themselves, to get out of themselves, to do something, anything, which will promote self-forgetfulness, self-oblivion. Psychologists claim that a lack of happy family life in childhood may lay the foundations for such a plight. A child unloved by its parents never learns to love itself.
Like The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” you may experience self-alienation as a feeling of intense loneliness or inner emptiness. (photo: Erik Ribsskog)
When feelings such as loneliness, loss, and placelessness assail them, people often get into serious emotional trouble. It is interesting to note that, when some people experience such feelings, they do not turn inward for an explanation of their own emotions. They do not even turn to psychology or philosophy, external knowledge bases which would give them some inkling of what is happening to them and are therefore relevant to their condition. Instead, they turn to spiritual belief systems. With Christianity, the West’s traditional religion, now fallen from favour, troubled individuals feel they must look elsewhere for spiritual comfort and understanding. With increasing regularity, they turn to godless belief systems such as Buddhism and Taoism. The absence of any moralizing god and the possibility of solitary spiritual practice are powerful attractions. That is, people prefer a godless belief system with no churches or temples and no organized religious service. We might call this, “do it yourself” spirituality.
The authentic self is real, constant, and stable. Once found and accepted, it can provide a centre, still point, and anchor in life. (Image: public domain.)
While not the most sympathetic, Ray Monk is perhaps the most thorough biographer of the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. According to Monk, Russell felt lonely and separated. He felt trapped inside the prison walls of his self, and believed only another person could alleviate the agony of imprisonment by seeing into his soul. (For clarity, I should mention that Russell was one of those who used the word “self” to describe the conscious “I.”) This is the desire, so commonly met with, to find a profoundly understanding soul mate.
Bertrand Russell craved someone who could see into his soul and relieve his sense of loneliness and separation. (Image: public domain)
In reality, Russell was agonizingly self-alienated. As someone who stressed conscious reasoning above all else, he was partially cut off from his unconscious mind. The resulting isolation of his ego, or “self” as Russell would have it, was the source of his painful loneliness. A sound connection with the unconscious adds richness to life. A more plentiful supply of allusive symbols and subjective images would have balanced the dry logic of mathematics and the cold sterility of abstract reasoning that were the centrepieces of Russell’s world. He would have had a greater sense of meaning. In all likelihood, an improved connection with the unconscious would have enhanced his emotional life as well.