“People, Places, Things,” is a mantra an old companion and friend of my youth enjoys repeating whenever some impetuous member of our circle begins talking about ways in which the world could be improved for the better. He refers, naturally, to those res which one is personally incapable of effecting. It is a good slogan, if only because, like many buzz-phrases, it is sufficiently loaded to render any looming discussions of politics dead in the womb.
It is also, some of you will be aware, the thrust of the vast majority of modern “self-help” philosophy. The addict, the depressive, the doom-mongerer, all are enjoined to realise that they are incapable of achieving anything useful by seeking to change those elements of the universe over which they have no power. And all is well and good and useful to society – or it is, at least, until one learns the follow-up concept.
“You,” the helpers proclaim, many of them former ‘sufferers’ themselves, “alkies, junkies, compulsive shaggers, procrastinators and all, will not find happiness attempting to control people, places, or things. You should, instead, seek to control yourself. Make in yourself the New Jerusalem that you would otherwise seek to make on the Earth.”
Yes, quite, very noble, very Ghandi-esque (It was Ghandi who said something along those lines, wasn’t it? He said most things. I can’t imagine it was Churchill or Wilde. Was it Mark Twain?), but I’m afraid I must take fault. You, the self who helps the self to help itself, claim that people are uniquely capable of controlling merely one thing – themselves. This, I should like to dispute most vigorously.
I know little about the good reader, but I am certain that I for one am entirely ineffectual at controlling myself. I’m buggered if I can even get out of bed most mornings. I, the I who think it might be a decent idea to get up early and set to work, cannot force the I who prefers lying in every day, to change it’s mind. And a jolly good thing that is too. For it is certainly not the I considering such things now as I sit at my desk composing this essay and wondering about it all who has achieved anything decent during the span of my existence.
It is not the I who concerns himself with word-counts, with punctuality, with presentation, temperance, or chastity, who has ever written a poem, has ever appreciated an opera, has ever fallen in love. Indeed, a good deal of the I who does the organising considers all these occupations a waste of time unless one is somehow benefitting monetarily, and I’d hate to think that an I who considers so low a concern as personal benefit morally relevant has any more of a sway over the various other components of me than is absolutely necessary for the sake of remembering to eat, go to the lavatory, or breathe.
Of course, there have been men and women of great achievement who have been dominated by that sort of I; Immanuel Kant for one, and a good deal of our leading scientists. But I’ll bet you Kant never stumbled across any truly deep understanding by checking his watch, or that any truly sublime concept in physics or mathematics was arrived at through cold, calculative logic alone.
Indeed, the philosopher or the mathematician will tell you that they were inspired; that they were gazing upon the wings of a butterfly and suddenly it all made sense, or that they had fallen asleep over their workings and the answer came in their dreams. Of course, it only appears to be spontaneous inspiration because such fellows are so very divorced from their creative selves that they don’t even recognise them when they come knocking. And, oh, just imagine what the regimented, self-controlling types of genius could achieve if they’d only allow their imaginations to intrude further into their beings than merely the brief interludes that nap-time or insect-gazing allow.
What’s more, I find something essentially tasteless and disturbing in the picture of a hypothetical world in which people are all more in control of themselves than they are already, if only because I know what the self-controlling people get up to. Further, one can’t help but see the danger in a large group of individuals, all believing that they are intellectually superior to their brethren because they have taken control of themselves; if only because those sorts of people are likely to be more capable of pulling off an organised coup than the rest of us are of preventing it.
Let us remember that self-control, a philosophy first espoused by radical Protestants, was later taken up as a cornerstone by other movements that grew out of need and deprivation; authoritarian socialism and fascism for example.
‘The Triumph of the Will’, a term coined by Nietzsche, was later adopted as a slogan of Nazi philosophy and the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s absurdly brilliant documentary on the Nuremberg Rally of ’34. In that film, we see rank upon thousandth rank of bright, clean, faces, all in control of themselves, all having got up in time for group athletics or the like, and all prepared and willing to make brutal war on all the good things in the world. Why? Well perhaps because it’s so bloody awful to experience the triumph of one’s will that it turns one a bit funny.
The revolutionary Marxist ideologies of Lenin and his ilk all seemed fairly nice ideas until one saw the sort of person prepared to turn up early and see the revolution through to its bitter, bloody conclusion. “The personal life is dead,” the Reds used to say, implying that the Revolution was a greater cause than any individual’s loves, hates, and idiosyncrasies. But I’m damned if I can see the Revolution as worth it, if the things that make life bearable must be sacrificed in its ghastly name.
And I fear, more than anything, that being informed that they are capable of controlling themselves is a dangerous message for these groups to be peddling to the doubtless vulnerable and impressionable individuals who come to them seeking help. Is it not an anachronism? Should it not be regarded as a relic of the West’s Puritan, witch-hunting, fun-fearing past; akin to homophobia or to the cruel way in which left-handed children were once routinely ‘corrected’?
Well, I don’t want to bang on any further. You’re probably starting to think I have a noisome bee in my bonnet already and, in any case, I have a pipe of thickest, darkest opium to smoke.
But, I do entreat you nonetheless, to try your best not to allow your will to enforce anything whatsoever, and whenever you feel like it’s being bossy to you or, worse, that it is you, to take the steps necessary to exorcise it from your life. I would suggest listening to Wagner. Do try, just for me, just for today.