Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Michel, Marcus, and Self-Exhortation

Foucault typologizes some kinds of ancient texts attending to moral self-maintenance in “Self-Writing,” a fragment of his project in the genealogy of ethics (History of Sexuality, Uses of Pleasure, The Care of the Self). Foucault ends by making a distinction between hupomnemata (reading-journal entries, miscellanies for one’s own reperusal) and accounts of oneself in letters to another: in the latter, “it is a matter of bringing into congruence the gaze of the other and that gaze which one aims at oneself when one measures one’s everyday actions according to the rules of a technique of living” (Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, vol 1, ed. Paul Rabinow [New York: New Press, 1997], 221). On the way, he quotes an interesting letter from the youngish Marcus Aurelius to his mentor Fronto which may bear comparison to the genreless journal writing by Walter Benjamin that interested me last summer (September 16, below):

I slept somewhat late because of my slight cold, which seems now to have subsided. So I spent from five a.m. till nine partly reading some of Cato’s Agriculture and partly writing stuff that wasn’t quite as awful, thank God, as yesterday. Then, after paying my respects to my father, I soothed my throat, I won’t say by gargling—though the word gargarisso is, I believe, in Novius and elsewhere—but by almost swallowing honey water and spitting it out again. After easing my throat I went off to my father and went with him to a sacrifice. Then we went to lunch. Guess what I ate? A little bread, although I saw other people stuffing themselves with beans, onions, and herrings full of roe. Then we worked hard gathering the grapes, and worked up a good sweat . . . .

Then I had a long talk with my little mother sitting on her bed. . . . I would ask “What do you think Fronto is doing right now?” and then she would ask “What do you think Gratia is doing?” So while we were . . . arguing about which of us loved one or the other of you more, the gong rang, meaning my father had gone across to his bath. So we had dinner after bathing in the oil-press room, I mean, we didn’t bathe in the oil-press room but after we bathed we had dinner there, and we had fun listening to the peasants giving each other a hard time. After that back home, and before rolling over to snore, I get my task done and give my dearest of masters an account of what I did today, and if I could miss you more, I’d be even more consumed.

The best of health to you, my Fronto, wherever you are, my honey-sweetest, my beloved, my delight. How are things between you and me? I love you, even though you’re not here.
(Quoted in Foucault, “Self Writing,” 220; Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninius, trans. A.S.L. Farquharson, ed. R.B. Rutherford [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989], 127-128; trans. modified)

If Foucault has The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in mind as a counterpoint, the contrast couldn’t be starker. Meditations is, weirdly—weird even if this was a convention--written in the second person, as a series of self-exhortations as from some other self: “Let not the future trouble you” (VII, §8); “Provided you are doing your proper work it should be indifferent to you whether you are cold” (VI, §2); “Whenever you are obliged by circumstances to be in a way troubled, quickly return to yourself” (VI, §11). There is also a prominent and always adversial “they”: “Endeavour to persuade them, but act even if they themselves are unwilling” (VII, §50); “See that you do not feel to[ward] the inhuman what they feel to mankind” (VII, §65). Self-exhortation is always already self-defeated, running behind a discouragement that has settled into the bones. The fundamental repeated sentiment, “Get yourself together!,” can’t be issued without splitting the self that is being exhorted to be together. Love of nature, interiority, self-knowledge, ipseity, are exposed in their tattered condition by this self-help mode, whose “desire to cheer yourself” (VI, §48) would seem to be based on the fear of the meaning of one’s wants. If Marcus’s Meditations can be excused by their being written during the hard campaigns against Germanic tribes of ~A.D. 170, when “Keep going!” was a military as well as psychological thought, we should also ask exactly what kind of excuse that is supposed to be. In those circumstances the will to keep going may be what we need less of, despite the ritual praise Marcus’s English translators give him for persevering, “for many years of his reign,” in “unproductive and exhausting" campaigns that were defensive in origin, but punitive and colonizing in their long-range goals. Karl Kraus notes that when it follows an interested social path, the will to self-sacrifice comes oddly easy: “Standing in line, for example, is great fun. People practically stand in line just to stand in line” [The Last Days of Mankind, ed. and trans. Alexander Gode and Ellen Wright [New York: Ungar, 1974], 36).

To an even greater extent than Foucault indicates, the letter to Fronto has little to do with that. It records efforts and submits itself to the thrill of a daily report to an intimate, but not only efforts are reported. Its rhetoric depends on the inclusion of irrelevant and physical details that would appeal only to someone by definition interested in “everything,” i.e., a beloved who would be amused to guess what Marcus ate for lunch and who would appreciate his every gesture, even the sniffling and the snoring so smoothly confided here. (In the previous letter Marcus had offered, “I am certainly a man of a generally runny-nosed tendency” [Rutherford 127]). Therefore nothing is scratched out or pre-censored. The dead grammatical end of bathing in the oil-press room stands, and we have to make a U-turn to get out of that scene. It’s the kind of mistake you can make in a realm where there are no real mistakes, as when it’s OK to walk in on a person naked, and the pleasure has already been taken by the time the apology is given. The point is really, “I could tell you if I took a bath with my mother in the oil-press room.” “I won’t use a slang word like GARGLE. Oh, did I just say GARGLE?” All of these extensions and retractions are verbal ways of putting the honey-water in his mouth and spitting it out again, where the thought of his interlocutor provides the honey flavoring. “Congruence with the gaze of the other” is a way of putting it, but there is also exhibitionism before the other’s glance, and most importantly the transformation of everyday events by a relation that is not so much a technique for living as a way of investing with interest even the parts of life that would seem not to contribute to any narrative, any ideal or useful good. Without that, we don't feel like working, even on ourselves. The self-exhortations of the older Marcus are prosthetic in comparison; the second person of the Meditations suggests, amid the promotion of self-relienace, a taxidermic vestige of that other who would make life worth living.

Image: Bruce Jackson, Foucault at the ruins of columns from an old bank, University at Buffalo, 1971.

p.s. Foucault is the only figure I’ve ever dreamed about. He was the life of the party, overmuch so, and he wanted to be loved.


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