Human Consciousness At Risk

Iwould like to invite the reader, once again, to accompany me on a brief philosophical investigation. The subject matter of this inquiry—the foundations (or lack thereof) of human consciousness—seems to be far removed from current political affairs; however, if one is patient enough to read through this article, one will see this is not actually the case. Never as today – when an elite of enlightened bureaucrats fiddles at will with the very pillars of civilization, like a band of escapees from a mental institution playing the scientists in an atomic laboratory – has it been so vital for every inhabitant of the planet to acquire a clear view of the constants which define the human condition, before the very image of humanness disappears from their memories under the impact of deforming experiments enforced on a global scale. And one of those constants is precisely that every human constant only shows through, as if in filigree, beneath the unceasing flow of historical mutation. Only a knowledge of the comparative history of civilizations and cultures can show, underneath that almost deranging diversity of forms, the endurance of the general structure of the human spirit. And since that which is at risk of immediate loss due to that vortex of forced transformations is primarily the very unity of each and every individual’s self-consciousness—for the fragmentation of culture results in the shattering of souls—, never has it been so important to know the historical mutations of the image of the “self” throughout the times, so as to distinguish, in that image, what is accidental and transitory from what is essential, permanent, and indispensable to the ultimate defense of human dignity.

One of the richest repositories of materials for such study is found in autobiographies. The historical development of that literary genre, in parallel with the changes that occurred in people’s experience of time, memory, and the act of narrating itself, evinces in a most clear manner the transformations suffered by individual self-consciousness over the ages.

Among the various works that have been recently published on the subject, Louisiana State University English Professor James Olney’s Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing (The University of Chicago Press, 1998) is one of the most useful, because, focusing on the history of the autobiographical genre in the period going from Augustine’s Confessions (397) to Samuel Beckett’s scenic monologue Company (1979), it manages to outline very clearly—over the passage from one extreme to the other—the gradual loss of the sense of the unity of self-consciousness, a unity without which the very intention of narrating one’s own life becomes absurd.

For both Augustine and Beckett, the structural model of the narrative is the same. Augustine illustrates it by the example of prayer. When he recites one of the psalms, he already knows it—completely and beforehand—by heart. As he recites the psalm, the words that follow one another are gradually actualized within time against the static backdrop of the whole text that is stored in his memory. When the recitation is over, the psalm has become complete within time and is thus returned to his memory, ready to be recited again and again and again. All autobiographical writings bear such a structure to some extent. The life to be told is complete in one’s memory, but it continues during its recollection and still after the narration is over, and is thus returned to one’s memory so it can be told again, or perhaps read or heard. What is the “substance” of this narrative? It is time; but which time? Is it the past, which no longer exists? The present, that infinitesimal atomistic instant which dissolves as soon as it appears? The future, which has a merely hypothetical existence? This riddle is more or less the same both in the Confessions and in Company.

Although joined in their shared concern with time, memory, and the self, these two books could not be more antagonistic in their views about such matters.

Augustine’s memoirs are the formal confession of a soul that, by fully assuming the authorship, the responsibility, and the consequences for each and every one of its acts, thoughts, and inner states, even the most obscure and remote in time, attends its own trial as if exhibiting an integral identity, whose various conflicting internal forces cannot but emphasize the tensional unity of the whole. Augustine is able to do so because he composes his narrative before an omniscient audience—God Himself. “To walk before God” means precisely to act and think in constant confrontation with the symbol of “omniscience”—that unreachable and insurmountable source of all consciousness, the only guarantee of the sincerity of thoughts, acts, and recollection. Although that expression is present in the Bible, Augustine was the first to verbalize the meaning of the experience that is condensed therein. He who walks before God governs and conceives himself at every moment, as if before the Last Judgment, in the complete form of his individual being that is consciously responsible for the act of choosing its own eternal fate. The complete life of the future is thus the measure for the recollection of the past, which the narrator undertakes in the present.

It is from this realization that Augustine extracts the solution to the problem of the unsubstantiality of time. God is not only omniscient: He is eternal. Boethius would later define eternity as the “the whole, simultaneous and perfect possession of unbounded life,” but this concept was already implicit in Augustine. If life’s various moments have no common unity, they cannot but crumble into utter nothingness. Only their total and simultaneous unity is real, and such unity is eternity itself, and nothing else. Time, merely in itself, really does not have any substantiality whatsoever. It is but a mirage, a “moving image of eternity.” If Augustine is able to master his past intellectually, that is because he exhibits it before the eyes of omniscience. If he is able to intuit the continuity of his own existence, this is because he regards it as a temporal reflection of eternity. The structure of moral self-awareness is the same structure of time—past, present, and future—in the axis of eternity.

This idea of the individual – as a complex and dramatic unity that is formed and assumed at the crossroads of the past, present and future—has been so incorporated into the Western tradition that it came to be the inspiration for the whole modern psychology of personality. Sixteen centuries after Augustine, Maurice Pradines, in his Traité de Psychologie Générale (1948), would define consciousness as “the memory of the past prepared for the tasks of the future.” Even in Freud, to whom much of the guilt (or the merit) for the dissolution of the unity of the self is wrongly ascribed, the personality is the resultant of an arbitration that is increasingly imposed upon the antagonistic impulses of the Id and the Superego by conscience. Nothing celebrates the final victory of unity more clearly than the famed prophecy by the father of psychoanalysis: “Where there is Id, there shall be Ego.”

In Company, there is a completely different perspective. Here a paralytic old man, on the stage, listens to episodes of his life—the life of Samuel Beckett himself—being narrated and commented on, in monologue, by a faceless voice. Could it be the “voice of conscience?” Yes and no. The voice tells the old man about himself, now in the second person, now in the third. He who in the present recalls the past no longer knows if that past is his own, of a third party, or of an imagined character. And the voice sets forth a frightful challenge to the old man’s sense of identity: if you cannot recall your own birth, how can you be sure that the life you remember is the same as that of the person whose birth you think to be your own?

Just like Augustine, Beckett’s character—which is indistinguishable from the author himself—draws his memories from the foil that is provided to him by an invisible interlocutor who transcends the narrator and has over him the authority of a formative entity. The result is thus different according to the identity of the interlocutor. God’s eternity and omniscience confer upon Augustine’s autobiographical image the unity of a story undertaken as responsible personal creation. But Beckett’s interlocutor is not omniscient; he is merely more cunning than the character in the play. He is the critical reason, that corrosive potion which dissolves the sense of the temporal unity of the self by means of epistemological demands which the self cannot meet. The paralytic old man does not even have the power to say “I” with awareness of the foundations of his self, but perhaps for that same reason he cannot be imputed with guilt for his sins or merit for his achievements. The crumbled I is incapable of telling his own story; he is a victim of his own existence and therefore has no responsibility over it whatsoever. Augustine’s narrative rises from the obscure bottom of the heart to the divine light which allows him, in response, to participate in its own unity and clarity. Beckett’s narrative, on the other hand, comes from an external gloom that obscures what little light the ego believed itself to have.

From one extreme to the other, Olney records some stages of the “crisis of narrative memory” which, as a common thread, pervades the whole history of the modern Western mentality. He traces the beginning of the “crisis” to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), but he is mistaken. That “crisis” was already fully established in René Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), which presents itself as an inner autobiography, as the narrative of a cognitive experiment (cf. and The hideous confusion that the philosopher produces there between the concrete existential self and the abstract concept of the self as absolute self-consciousness (cogito ergo sum), going from the former to the latter without noticing the leap from the temporal to the deductive realm, is one of the most prodigious mutilations ever imposed upon the autobiographical awareness of Western man. Beckett’s problem was already there. As Jean Onimus (Beckett, un Écrivain devant Dieu, Desclée de Brouwer, 1967) well noted: “Place yourselves at the Cartesian cogito at its starting point,… and you shall see Beckett’s man in the full extent of his misfortune.”

The Cartesian self cannot tell its story because it is merely an abstract form isolated in space and cut off from temporal experience. However, if Descartes presents it in a narrative form, it is because he literally does not realize what he is doing. Cartesianism is not the inaugural chapter in the dissolution of narrative self-consciousness (in an unpublished text from my Philosophy Seminar I have ascribed the questionable honor to Niccolò Machiavelli’s autobiographical fragments), but it is indeed an important episode in that process. Descartes’s inconsistency would be greatly amplified by Immanuel Kant’s idea of the “transcendental I.” This hideous creature of German philosophy possesses the authority to determine the boundaries of all experience that is accessible to the wretched existential I, without ever being limited itself by such borders; but it does not allow the existential I, in spite of that fact, even the smallest and narrowest crevice through which to see what lies beyond those boundaries. That creature is called “transcendental” precisely because it shuts off all doors that lead to what is “transcendent.” Settled at the medial heights of the transcendental I, which lies but slightly above the existential I, Kant does not permit anyone to rise above himself. The perverse satisfaction with which he believes himself to be determining the “boundaries of human knowledge” shows that he believed himself to be like what a “guardian of the gate” is in the initiatory ladders, a metaphysical Pasionaria, screaming to the seekers of eternity: “They shall not pass! They shall not pass!” I have not a shadow of a doubt that Beckett’s interlocutor is the Kantian transcendental I. Kant, on one hand, believed that human knowledge was limited to the experience of the senses, of space and time; on the other, he used to say that the data of experience are chaotic crumbs, upon which consciousness imposes its own unity. Left to itself, however, and devoid of the backdrop of eternity, consciousness itself crumbles. Beckett’s isolated and desperate man, even more than in Descartes, is present and manifested in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). By denying consciousness access to eternity, the transcendental I makes consciousness itself inaccessible and evanescent.

Thence derives the apparently logical and profoundly absurd demand which comes from the darkness: the idea that only the self which remembered its own birth clearly would have the authority to assert that its story was indeed its own story is entirely based on a Kantian prank, which, in turn, has a colossal ineptitude as its premise—it amounts to assuming that the only legitimate self-consciousness would be that of a being which could consciously observe its own birth. In order to do that, however, such a being would have to exist in time before entering temporal existence. In real experience, each and every beginning, each and every pregnancy, takes in place in obscurity: luminosity is attained progressively. To tell the story of one’s own life without having witnessed one’s own birth is not undue pretentiousness: it is simply a real condition of human experience. Because it intends to critique experience, the transcendental I establishes premises which deny the possibility of all experience, and therefore of its own critique.

Beckett is aware of the humorous trait of his own speculations. But Kantian humor is pathetically involuntary. Olney’s study has the merit of developing the fundamental concept of the “crisis of narrative memory;” however, it is rather incomplete when trying to illustrate the concept. Descartes is but mentioned in passing, and Kant’s name is not even present. And both the neglect of Proust, who spent his life trying to solve the Augustinian problem of time, and of Arthur Koestler, who recorded in his Darkness at Noon (1940) the dwindling of self-consciousness as a “grammatical fiction” under the pressure of modern totalitarianism, are unpardonable. The author also does not seem to make the connection between the “crisis of memory” and a parallel and inseparable process: the epidemic of autobiographical and biographical narratives consciously falsified for purposes of political propaganda, a phenomenon which was observed in France at least a century before the not-so-conscious liar that was Rousseau.

It would indeed be impossible for the dissolution of self-consciousness not to be accompanied by a progressive loss of sense of intellectual responsibility and by a formidable expansion of amorality, manipulative cynicism, and sadistic cruelty. The destruction of the civilizational basis of human existence does not begin on the battlefields nor in the stock market: it starts in the quiet studies, where seemingly harmless men—whether philosophers or UN bureaucrats—attempt to be wiser than God. It makes no sense to dissociate the crisis of self-consciousness from the progressive modern rejection of the sense of eternity, and it is not possible to accept the dissolution of self-consciousness while simultaneously trying to preserve high moral standards of conduct. In our time, which marks the end of an age, the historical consequences of intellectual decisions made three, four, or five centuries ago take on the form of totalitarianism, widespread violence, genocide, and above all the universal reign of falsehood. Those who seek a remedy for such evils in political action will have to understand, sooner or later, that their root lies in the ethereal realms of abstract thought. And those who, due to personal preferences, devote themselves to abstract thought should examine with all sincerity of conscience the devastating effects of the seemingly innocuous abstractions which were created by the philosophers of the last few centuries. In this sense, philosophy is politics, and politics is philosophy.

Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute. This article was originally published in the Brazilian newspaper Diário do Comércio on March 13, 2006, and translated from the Portuguese by Pedro Cava and revised by Alessandro Cota and Benjamin Mann.

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