Sympathy for the Devil
This began as a comment on sallysassypants’ lovely Persephone piece posted on Friday, but became entirely too long and involved, so rather than writing an essay there, I decided to post my thoughts here.
As individual subjects, we hold multiple personal and social positions. I am related to people x, y and z. I am from place p. I am friends with l, m, and n. I have income ∂. I live in g. I am ƒ years old. My ethnic background is t, u, and v. I have had life experiences p, q, and r. Those positions are not necessarily constant; many change over time (or disappear completely) - by chance and by choice - and neither do the ways in which those positions interact remain the same. Moreover, these positions may be ordered differently at any given time, and some may be salient in some contexts and not in others. The world I imagine as someone who has experienced q may be very different from the world I imagine as someone who lives in g. And, these imagined worlds - these systems of beliefs, of right actions, of practical knowledge, etc. - may very well be in tension, or even in contradiction, with one another. They don’t form a cohesive whole by themselves.
On this point, ailanthusaltissima invoked Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in response to the Persephone piece -
Do I contradict myself?There is no shame in tension or contradiction in one’s own identity. However, in the West at least, logic and rationality have a stranglehold on how we construct and assess worldviews, whether our own or others’. We’re not allowed to be self-contradictory, or to be hypocrites. We have to follow point A to point B to point C in steps that are traceable and well-defined, so as others might be able to figure out how we got where we are and why. But human experience defies this. Maybe we visit points A, B, and C simultaneously, or we never get there at all, and end up down a dark alley somewhere hunting for rainbows. Expecting that we can resolve our multitudes into a simple proof and judging others when we observe they can’t do so? What a tragic narrowing of the human experience; what a tragic flattening of the subject. Yet human beings are pattern seekers; we have a very weak grasp on things that aren’t related or threaded together and we need something that ties our positions together into an identity (or identities).
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Making sense of one’s own life - one’s experiences and the positions one occupies - doesn’t mean we’re stuck shoe-horning it all into some sort of facile rational template, however. Confession, as sallysassypants describes it, is a self-reflective process that is really about imposing a narrative on the many parts of yourself, about finding a way to order and to make sense of the multiple positions you occupy and the multitudes you contain. Confession is loose, flexible, and creative, allowing for tension and contradiction to be explained (if you so choose) but not smoothed over or, worse, forced to disappear. Yet imposing that order, or that narrative, tends to “clean up” the ugly bits that might make you who you are, the things you as the present subject want to sweep under the table, or, more benignly, the things that don’t appear to you important from your current temporal position. A confession is just snapshot in time - aided by a little (or a lot of!) mental Photoshop - a picture of the present self you see. So, in short, the ultimate problem with this sort of straightforward confession is that it makes static a self that is profoundly dynamic … just like a photograph.
Of course, others might see you differently from the way you see yourself. To continue the photograph metaphor: the way you frame your self-portrait will likely be quite different from the way another individual would frame you. After all, those frames - whether your own or others - are also influenced by your or others’ positions. Because I am positioned differently from you, I may take a wildly different photograph of you than you would take of yourself … even if I knew everything about you. My experience as k and your experience as j would result in that. In the real world, though, you are quite likely to not know everything about me and your portrait of me will come out “wrong” from my perspective. Unless I tell you otherwise, you probably won’t know that I think your framing is off, or that don’t find your portrait quite right.
This is the root of a vast number of misunderstandings between individuals. My subjectivity is not your subjectivity, and vice versa. But where does this leave us? We can’t run around trying to figure out the entirety of everyone else’s positions and how they view those positions and what is salient now and what is not and what phase of moon it is and whether they had enough fiber for breakfast. Such a thing is practically and epistemologically impossible. What we have to rely on is communication. I show your my self-portrait, I give you my confession … you give me yours. Intersubjective knowledge allows for this to happens, allows for us to share our worlds and to share a world.
But, sharing requires some level of mutual trust. It requires that I won’t piss all over you and try to shut you up if you share with me your self-portrait, but it also requires a different kind of trust … it requires that I trust you with your own image, your own narrative, your own confession. I have to acknowledge that I can’t tell you better than you can tell yourself, even if I know full well that the process of confessing, of self-portraiture, is not perfect.
Political attitudes arise as a result of one’s multitudinous personal and social positions and the way one reflects on those positions. I think many among you all - my followers here on Tumblr - will take this to its obvious conclusion, the conclusion that, for example, as a cisgendered, heterosexual, middle-class, educated, liberal, childless, etc. woman in my late 20s, I can’t tell the story of someone who is not one of those things. However, that’s only part of the conclusion. You can’t only trust the confessions of those with whom you already agree, or with whom you share known political commitments. This applies to everyone. Rather than saying (to pick a suitably general liberal feminist attitude), “Women who vote Republican are stupid and self-hating,” maybe we ought to actually listen to women who vote Republican, just as rather than saying, “The veil is oppressive to Muslim women,” maybe we ought to actually listen to Muslim women who “veil” themselves.
If the devil represents a person with whom we vehemently disagree, then I think we have to have sympathy for the devil. But having sympathy for the devil is not the same as agreeing with the devil and sending out invitations for a party in hell. It means looking. It means listening. It means paying attention to the devil’s story. It means accepting that the devil isn’t a static, monolithic evil, but is a dynamic, complicated subject like yourself. It means accepting that the devil may not always be the devil, or that the devil wasn’t always the devil. (With some fear of driving the devil analogy in the ground, it means thinking about Satan like Milton did, and not like the authors of the Bible.)
In the end, we have to all remember that we all contain multitudes … unique, dynamic multitudes inside every last one of us. We may not be able to ever see all of those multitudes contained in others, but it is important to realize that they are there. And, if we are to encounter a devil, and we remember this, and have sympathy for her enough to listen to her confession, we might learn what has brought her to an unsavory social or political attitude. It might not be what we think, when we finally uncover the narratives and self-understanding. And … if we really care and have the effort to expend, we might be able to give that devil a new understanding, a new experience, a new encounter, or a new dialogue that might push her toward a new, more savory social or political attitude. That’s what the dynamic subject allows for that the static subject does not. As we live, we learn new things and create new self-portraits and share new confessions. We can become better.
Yes, even devils. (Because we’ve all been devils once, haven’t we?)