dinsdag 16 december 2008

Being boss in your own book

The phenomenon of being ashamed for your own thinking is a recurrent theme in Levinas’s books. The appropriation of the world which proceeds by way of thinking may be experienced by the thinker as a kind of imperialism which hurts the identity of other people.

In my book Shame and Change I tried to identify that shame in the context of organizations. My question was: do organizators (managers, consultants, coaches) recognize that phenomenon? It turned out that in their case such shame can manifest itself when they get stuck in their own plans and schemes. When the blindness of their thinking is unmasked by the confrontation with somebody who is injured by it, organizators may get embarrassed and become aware of their imperialism. Often a kind of loneliness is connected with the embarrassment.

But of course, according to Levinas, this thoughtshame, or rationalityshame, is not limited to one professional or population group. He describes self-consciousness because of one’s own thinking as an existential human phenomenon, which can manifest itself each time when one person thinks for another. For instance, in the case of parents who wish the best for their child or of a nurse who takes care of her patient.

For a change, in this message, I want to relate rationalityshame to the professional group of novelwriters. For, if Levinas’s and my thesis is: thinking can make the thinker lonely and its imperialism can cause the thinker’s embarrassment, isn’t it only logical to suppose that those phenomena will manifest themselves frequently with writers? If somewhere thinking – in this context labeled as imagination – has a free ride, it is in novels, where, as some literary critics say, the writer still reigns supremely as a god.

A writer who speaks about his embarassment as well as about his solitude is Amos Oz. In Rhyming Life and Death Oz discloses that his uninhibited imagination can cause moments of shame. He tells us this immediately after showing, in the same book, an almost shameless sample of his imaginationpower.

The startingpoint for this phantasy is his alter ego, a writer on his way to a public performance. In preparation for his performance he sits in a café and thinks about the salvo of questions that will be fired towards him. The phantasy is recorded as follows:

“Underwhile he pays attention to the beautiful legs of the waitress. While he awaits his omelet, the writer tries to imagine this waitress’s first love (he decides her name will be Riki): when she was sixteen yet, she fell in love with the reserve goalkeeper of footballclub Bnei Yehudah, Charlie. The author imagines how this Riki is exchanged for some other woman, who that is, how this proceeds and what impact this will have on the rest of her life.”

“When the writer finally decides to go to his public performance, he already has fabricated a complete world. This process is speeded up when, once arrived in the auditorium, he inspects his audience. Absorbed in his usual swindling he appropriates their history, as if he were picking their pockets, he robs their affairs, their weaknesses and obsessions.”

But at a certain moment Oz doesn’t feel comfortable with this fabriciationwork: “While the writer gets continuously more immersed in his imagination and enjoys an imaginary love scene, he simultaneously is assaulted by growing doubts: ‘Why do I write? What’s the use of it?’ He gets ashamed when he realizes that others people for him only exist as food for his stories. At the same time he feels himself seized by ‘a deep distress because of his perennial aloofness, his inability to be touched and to touch’.”

Is it an overstatement to say that in a certain way every writer is a thief? He takes something out of reality and transforms it to something of his own. And somehow he is left more lonesome than he was before.

This wording of a writer's swindling is quite similar to what Levinas says about our thinking: he calls it an act of appropriation, because it robs things and people from their identity and incorporates them in the totalitarian whole of its own world. A feast of independence and autonomy, Levinas acknowledges. But at the same time, it creates lonelines and a desperate longing for deliverance by an Other, for what Levinas calls: heteronomy.

It is not difficult to see that the celebration of imagination as practised in novels fits in very well into our Western intellectual tradition with its emphasis on autonomy and independent thinking. The novel, and most of all its creator, may be considered as exponents of this tradition. Is it just accidental that in Holland last year it were no politicians, musicians or sporters, but two writers about whom was disclosed that they arranged their own life’s end?