(This is an abridged excerpt from my latest book. Enjoy. . . .)
It is precisely here, when we try to be real, that the true difficulty becomes increasingly overt. If “our Great War is a spiritual war” as Tyler Durden says, then we should expect to be resisted when we begin to question the mold into which the culture desires to squeeze us.
Thomas Merton suggests that all people possess a true self (which is a mystery largely hidden) and a false self (the identity we try to cultivate in order to function in society). The root of all our frustration is in our assuming that the false self is the true one. Since we are prone to believe the lie that the metanarrative of the Market and the Matrix is all there is, we do everything we can to prop up the façade and seek fuel for the illusion. Merton says that our problems begin with
. . . the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality to which everything else is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experience, for power, honor, knowledge and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could become visible only when something visible covered its surface.
Until a person can see past the illusion, he thinks of himself as The Invisible Man who, in order to be seen by himself and others, must desperately hunt for whatever shallow experiences and pleasures he can find in order to wrap them around himself so that others don’t bump into him on the sidewalk. Perhaps even more vivid is the picture Merton paints of man according to which, by his “spiritual double-vision” that deludes him into thinking like the world wants him to, man actually loses the integrity of his own soul, thus splitting himself in two. And to make matters worse, we soon become like two shadows rather than one person, eventually forgetting which one of us is real. Thus the greater the degree to which man avoids grappling with his own transcendence, the more hopeless will become his thoughts, and the more frenetic will become his activity as he seeks to distract himself from his own spiritual schizophrenia — he is Sméagol one moment, and Gollum the next. “He becomes his own slave driver,” Merton says. “A shadow whipping a shadow to death.”
After a lifetime of such self-delusion and mask-wearing, we begin to think that the mask is our true face. Merton insists that the real aim of society is seen in this very pursuit. He writes:
This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities—“selves,” that is to say, regarded as objects. Selves that can stand back and see themselves having fun (an illusion which reassures them that they are real).
The culture (which Merton refers to as “the collectivity”) will indeed promise to satisfy our needs, as long as we behave and obey its rules. The more we submit to it, the more power it usurps over our lives, increasing our needs and tightening its demand for conformity on our part (a kind of thank-offering to society for its meeting the so-called needs it created in the first place).
Thus you can become all the more committed to the collective illusion in proportion to becoming more hopelessly mortgaged to collective power. How does this work? The collectivity informs and shapes your will to happiness (“have fun”) by presenting you with irresistible images of yourself as you would like to be: having fun that is so perfectly credible that it allows no interference of conscious doubt. In theory such a good time can be so convincing that you are no longer aware of even a remote possibility that it might change into something less satisfying. In practice, expensive fun always admits of a doubt, which blossoms out into another full-blown need, which then calls for a still more credible and more costly refinement of satisfaction, which again fails you. The end of the cycle is despair.
The irony in all of this is that in such a vicious cycle, the only thing that can substitute for happiness is the pursuit of happiness, and Desire becomes an end in itself:
She’s the dollars, she’s my protection;
She’s the promise in the year of election;
Oh, sister, I can’t let you go,
You’re like a preacher stealing hearts
At a travelling show.
Here’s the thing about masks, though: you can only wear them for so long before they start to itch. Just ask any parent who has taken her children trick-or-treating: before you have successfully rung three doorbells the mask will be torn from the child’s face and you will end up carrying it for the duration of the night. Now when it comes to the sophisticated, adult kind of mask-wearing, either we become accustomed to our mask, or we do not. If we do not, then either we seek its removal altogether (which may be the first step towards freedom), or more commonly, we attempt to trade it in for the one that someone else has on.
Alienation begins when culture divides me against myself, puts a mask on me, gives me a role I may or may not want to play. Alienation is complete when I become completely identified with my mask, totally satisfied with my role, and convince myself that any other identity or role is inconceivable. The man who sweats under his mask, whose role makes him itch with discomfort, who hates the division in himself, is already beginning to be free. But God help him if all he wants is the mask the other man is wearing, just because the other one does not seem to be sweating or itching. Maybe he is no longer human enough to itch (or else he pays a psychiatrist to scratch him).
Needless to say, although a mask may be a convenient shield to hide behind as we seek to portray a false view of ourselves to the world, the fact is that it either suffocates those who are aware of it, or lulls to sleep those who aren’t (and either way, the road is vain and its end is death).
So don’t allow the Media, or the Matrix, or the Market to write your story or tell you who you are (and make no mistake, there is no end to those who would provide you a narrative and force upon you an identity if you let them). Perhaps it has been buried beneath layer after layer of pretense, obscured by the various masks you’ve sampled, or eclipsed by years of pretending to be something you’re not, but deep down, underneath it all, is who you really are.
Be that, is what I’m saying.