I read a paragraph in The Fountainhead a few nights ago that made me recall the last chapter of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” It had to do with self punishment. Well, after thinking about it for two or so days, that’s what I came up with.
From The Fountainhead:
Sometimes, not often, he sat up and did not move for a long time; then he smiled, the slow smile of an executioner watching a victim. He thought of the days going by, of the buildings he could have been doing, should have been doing and, perhaps, never would be doing again. He watched the pain’s unsummoned appearance with a cold, detached curiosity; he said to himself: Well, here it is again. He waited to see how long it would last. It gave him a strange, hard pleasure to watch his fight against it, and he could forget that it was his own suffering; he could smile in contempt, not realizing that he smiled at his own agony. Such moments were rare. But when they came, he felt as he did in the quarry: that he had to drill through granite, that he had to drive a wedge and blast the thing within him which persisted in calling to his pity.
And from Brave New World:
Half an hour later, three Delta-Minus landworkers from one of the Puttenham Bokanovsky Groups happened to be driving to Elstead and, at the top of the hill, were astonished to see a young man standing outside the abandoned lighthouse stripped to the waist and hitting himself with a whip of knotted cords. His back was horizontally streaked with crimson, and from weal to weal ran thin trickles of blood. The driver of the lorry pulled up at the side of the road and, with his two companions, stared open-mouthed at the extraordinary spectacle. One, two three–they counted the strokes. After the eighth, the young man interrupted his self-punishment to run to the wood’s edge and there be violently sick. When he had finished, he picked up the whip and began hitting himself again. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve…
Of course, you would have to read the surrounding paragraphs to get the full gist of what’s going on, but these types of scenarios are quite common in these types of books. It’s something I really enjoy reading.
Back in the beginning, I wondered why certain authors continually brought up various types of self punishment. They made a real effort to convey the agony of certain characters…agony these characters inflicted upon themselves (so it seemed). I would think to myself various ways to avoid this type of pain. After a while, I came to enjoy reading about challenges, defeat and how people through the ages just let it happen.
There are so many examples of huge historic figures giving in to the forces of those around them. To many people, it might seem that these figures have simply surrendered, but to those in the know, it’s quite the opposite. I don’t want to get off track here, but just think of Socrates…
Socrates’s followers encouraged him to flee, and citizens expected him to do so and were probably not averse to it; but he refused on principle. Apparently in accordance with his philosophy of obedience to law, he carried out his own execution, by drinking the hemlock poison provided to him. Socrates died at the age of 70. (Source)
I admire Socrates’ values.
Anyway, back to the self punishment thing. Here’s what I have come up with – For those of us who are brave enough and strong enough, we are willing to look at pain and explore it. We don’t push it aside in an effort to think of something more friendly. Pain is a reaction to something that needs to be changed (if one of your goals is to “live the good life” as they say). In today’s societies, so much negativity is plastered over. It’s hidden by what we have created to mask what we refuse to think about. Consider what we are forced to endure during our lives and what we do to ease what we try to avoid. And remember, it’s completely natural to try to avoid these types of feelings, it’s almost out of our hands. I’ll just name a few:
…actually, I’m not going to talk about that. I changed my mind. I would like to talk about the feeling of guilt for a while. Guilt is the source of so many other things and guilt isn’t discussed much. Well, I haven’t heard about it very often. Here’s my opinion: Guilt is something that someone else gives you. It’s a feeling that can last a lifetime and it’s not valid. If you were living alone on earth, there would be no action you could ever perform to feel guilty about, therefore, guilt is one of those gifts you shouldn’t accept. Guilt is a powerful de-motivator and control of genuine action.
I am getting so off track here, it’s not even funny.
Anyway, how does guilt, shame, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, etc…relate to what many philosophical authors have written about through the ages? Well, I think these are all emotions that we attempt to eliminate. We find various ways to sooth our feelings instead of facing them. It’s interesting to think about how many of us may never have a genuine feeling in our lives. When someone says they have “died inside,” I don’t think they are experiencing extreme sadness, I think they have lost their ability to feel. What these authors are trying to convey are those very real experiences of feeling. As in “Brave New World,” the character (the Savage) who was whipping himself was experiencing something he had lost for a long time. He chose to do this because he had trouble handling the new society those around him so gaily enjoyed. Take a look at this:
The Savage had chosen as his hermitage the old light-house which stood on the crest of the hill between Puttenham and Elstead. The building was of ferro-concrete and in excellent condition–almost too comfortable the Savage had thought when he first explored the place, almost too civilizedly luxurious. He pacified his conscience by promising himself a compensatingly harder self-discipline, purifications the more complete and thorough. His first night in the hermitage was, deliberately, a sleepless one. He spent the hours on his knees praying, now to that Heaven from which the guilty Claudius had begged forgiveness…
The Savage chose not to live in a society that didn’t encourage genuine feeling and self-awareness. When there’s an answer for everything, a drug we can take or a group that can help us feel better about what’s going on in our minds, we lose the ability to really focus on the issue’s source. I believe this creates a habit of avoidance. How can people solve issues when they don’t discuss them or feel the necessary pain associated with them?
Ayn Rand is particularly clever when it comes to this type of thing. Many of her characters have completely ignored any emotion that society has offered to replace self-awareness. What goes on in Atlas Shrugged is a topic unto itself, so I’ll just discuss a bit about a character in The Fountainhead.
Dominique Francon is one of the main characters of the book. For 205 pages, she has been steadily emotionless. After she meets Howard Roark (the character from the excerpt above), things change. For the first time in her life, she has met someone who is in touch with his personal identity.
It is only through Roark that her love of adversity and autonomy meets a worthy equal. These strengths are also what she initially lets stifle her growth and make her life miserable. She begins thinking that the world did not deserve her sincerity and intellect, because the people around her did not measure up to her standards. She starts out punishing the world and herself for all the things about man which she despises, through self-defeating behavior. She initially believes that greatness, such as Roark’s, is doomed to fail and will be destroyed by the ‘collectivist’ masses around them. She eventually joins Roark romantically, but before she can do this, she must learn to join him in his perspective and purpose. (Source)
The wonderful thing about these books and the way philosophy explains topics like this is that people can finally get an understanding of why they are the way they are.
How this relates to me…
I will admit to you that I am not the most amiable person at times. I tend to seek the truth in everything. Complacency makes my blood boil and I have difficulty getting along with certain types of people. I don’t know why, but it’s getting worse. As I grow older and become more aware, I get more and more frustrated with those who aren’t. Growing more aware that is.
So many times…so many times I have tried to just grin and bear it, but I can’t. It’s impossible.
I think that’s why I identify with so much of what’s written above. Very few have spent the time and effort analyzing and feeling enough to achieve any type of mental result, but when I find someone who has, I truly appreciate it.
Anyway, I just thought those were interesting excerpts and I enjoyed talking about them.