23 August 2007

The Power of Love & Trascendance - an excerpt from Csikszentmihalyi's Evolving Self

One of the men who most influenced my perspective on the modern world is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I'm still amazed that Csikszentmihalyi's book The Evolving Self isn't continually cited. It gets my vote as the most overlooked and underappreciated books of our time.

Central to his thesis is the notion that a fully developed self comes from two often competing needs: the movements towards greater complexity and integration of that complexity into harmony, bringing those disparate elements into a whole self. Complexity results from pursuit of what makes us individuals, and he calls a person joyfully invested in complex goals a transcender. What follows is an excerpt of Evolving Self, using the Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy as an example.

There are many individuals whose actions demonstrate what a life dedicated to complexity could be like. But they cannot be reduced to a type, for there cannot be a single path to reaching personal harmony. Because differentiation is one-half of a complex consciousness, each person must follow his or her own bent, find ways to realize his or her unique individuality. And because we are born with a different combination of temperamental strengths and weaknesses, and with different gifts, and grow up in different family contexts, communities, and historical periods, each of us displays a characteristic pattern of potentials. Therefore, there is no such thing as a typical transcender, nor a best way to achieve complexity.

[Csikszentmihalyi gives an account of the early life of Faludy, a Jew who ended up imprisoned in a Nazi prison camp. He lived through this, migrated to the US, but returned to socialist Hungary. Again, he was imprisoned by an authoritarian government, somehow surviving this ordeal in a Stalinist-era prison from which few survived.]

Yet it was precisely in this dreadful environment, where inmates were whipped to labor from dawn to dusk, with slops to eat and rags to wear, that Faludy's muse really started to sing. His prison verses are among the most lyrical ever written in that genre. They deal with the most realistic and painful aspects of life in a concentration camp: hunger, frostbite, and brutality of ignorant and frightened men. Yet these clinical accounts of entropy are narrated so concisely and elegantly that their tragic content is transformed into a thing of beauty.

In fact, this was precisely Faludy's intent. In order to maintain his own sanity, and that of his fellow prisoners, he tried to give meaning to an otherwise intolerable existence. In one of his last poems before being released Faludy wrote:
What was the best thing I learned?
That after need
left my ravaged body
love did not leave.
Susy [his wife] became a light, silvery mist; shimmering always
before my eyes
even when shut
in pain, in gnawing hunger, as senses left,
love stayed,
love, the eternal fire, burning without harming,
not born of scalding desire,
no dreg of glands,
no juice of sex organs,
Dante, not Boccaccio,
Apollo, not the world of the dead.

Let Ziggy Freud go soak his head.

In the extremity of a life-threatening situation, the former rebel sought sustenance from the most hopeful aspects of the past, from the most meaningful memes of his civilization - and from the love for his wife. Perhaps one of the most touching aspects of Faludy's oeuvre is that originally it was not written down, for the simple reason that pencil and paper were not available in the camp. At first Faludy memorized each of his poems. Then, to avoid losing them through death or forgetfulness, he had fellow prisoners learn them by heart as well. In one case, toward the end of his captivity, he composed a long elegy for his wife, and each part of it was memorized by different inmates. Some of these prisoners were freed before Faludy, and went to visit his wife, to bring news of her husband and to recite the part of the poem they had memorized. At the end of the recitation they would typically announce: "That's all I learned. But in a few days Jim Egri should be released, and he will come and tell you the next twenty verses."

When Faludy was finally allowed to return to civilization, and then escaped once more to the West during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he published his prison verses, relying on his memory aided by various mnemonic devices. (For instance, he had made certain that the first poem he composed began with the letter "A," the second with "B," and so on.) Soon after, he started to receive letters from all over the world, from Brazil to New Zealand, containing corrections to his poems. They were written by former inmates, now scattered across the globe, who had committed to memory the harmoniously transformed accounts of their deadly experiences. Most of these corrections were incorporated into later editions of Faludy's work.

Faludy's life serves as such a valuable example for two complementary reasons: In the first place, it is so idiosyncratic in its specifics as to be obviously inapplicable to the lives of most people. How many of us have such a gift for language, have suffered so much persecution, and triumphed over so many obstacles? Yet despite - or rather, because of - its uniqueness, Faludy's story is typical of those individuals who have been able to fulfill the potential complexity of their selves. He is certainly not a saint, but he may not qualify as a Confucian sage or a Bodhisattva, either. But he learned to find flow in complexity; he learned to transform entropy into memes that create order in the consciousness of those who attend to them, and so because of him the world is a little more harmonious than it would have been otherwise.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium, 1993, pp. 208 - 213.

1 comment:

Cesar said...

Hi there. My name is Cesar and I am a Livejournal member. My friend Avad linked this blog on her page, I followed it, and well, it truly added another proverbial piece to the puzzle that is my life.

Instead of writing some more on here, I'll link you up to Livejournal so you can read the reply your post inspired.

And here it is: