Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/09/2011

My self at the vanishing point



For a week I have not been able to write. This is particularly annoying because it also means I cannot grade papers. Don’t ask. The two are related in some way I don’t understand. I have a set of essays that I must return graded to the students in three days.

It’s always interesting when I wake up and not only have nothing on my mind but simply can’t get myself to try to write. One might wonder where all this (occasional) desperation to write goes—why I suddenly can’t do what otherwise I must do every day. Other activities take writing’s place—watching reruns of Criminal Minds (A&E shows six or eight episodes at a time); or going to yoga class every day; or looking at Facebook (scrolling all the way down the list of people to friend because they are friends of my friends can take hours); or doing nothing.

I ask myself why. And I have no answer.

The experience feels as if I have lost myself. Lost some part of myself that I hardly realize is there when all systems are go. On those occasions when I have lost myself, I understand that

. . . we are—or our personality is structured—as a stranger within us. This was one of the insights that led Sigmund Freud to formulate his psychoanalytical theory of the human psyche. Being a stranger to oneself is what the Unconscious is all about, but this insight lays one open to the passion which led Narcissus not only to egoism but to amnesia and death (1).

I don’t know much about the psychoanalytical theory of Sigmund Freud. I do, however, have some understanding of the danger of the passion of dwelling so much on myself (the reflection I see of myself) at any given moment—and on what I am doing (writing or not writing, for example)—that my ego becomes all, and I forget who I am. I am a stranger to myself.

All junior high school students in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in the’50s were required to take a basic art class—drawing, painting, sculpting. I was pretty good at it. Somewhere in my piles of boxes of mementos from my parents’ house is the sort of abstract expressionist painting I did of “shapes” that won some prize or other and was in a show of junior high school art at the University of Nebraska or somewhere. I recently threw away hundreds of similar doodles I’ve done throughout my life.

Being as an absence

Being as an absence

One of the exercises we worked on was drawing landscapes and buildings utilizing a proper “vanishing point.” I got pretty good at it. And Mr. What’s-His-Name (until the onset of Sometimer’s Disease I could remember it) had me looking at stuff by Leonardo Da Vinci and other artists to help me understand. The concept is commonplace—in our visual perception of the world (especially out in open spaces) all lines of sight lead to one place (perhaps on the horizon). Thus, the Renaissance artists discovered, realism demands that the lines shaping a house drawing, for example, lead to one point. And that point is carried in a line across the entire drawing. Of course, it’s much more complicated, but that’s more or less the concept. I’ve used the “paint” program to draw a sample. It’s pretty sloppy, but what does anyone expect me to produce electronically without a straight-edge.

The vanishing point is, of course, at the horizon or the imagined horizon in a painting, so artists don’t actually include it. Except for a whimsical drawing by David Macaulay, “Locating the Vanishing Point,”  from 1978 (2) in which a group of people are crowded around the end of a railroad track coming together at the horizon—the crowd looking at the vanishing point.

Sorenson’s article (which I barely comprehend because I don’t have the philosophical vocabulary or the density of mind to understand Wittgenstein and Heidegger) pointed me in the direction of a new metaphor for my “self” (not for yours, this is only me talking about me). I have not only lost myself and become a stranger to myself, but my “self” exists at the vanishing point. It is never really there except in whimsy. I am an absence.

Last Friday (October 7), Gov. Mitt Romney, seeking the Republican nomination for President, said in a speech that “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers” (3). I am shocked. I don’t get it. Where this kind of disconnected-from-reality speaking comes from, I cannot imagine.

What would happen, I wonder, if from birth we were not told that we are members of a society, that the construct of “nation” or any description like “a nation of followers” is a purely arbitrary abstraction meant to keep hidden from our thoughts the reality that we are each—every human being—an absence, that we exist only at the vanishing point. Our sight, both outward-looking and inward looking, moves to that one point where we see our ego, our sense of ourselves as Narcissus looking into our reflection. And the point vanishes. If we are aware of ourselves as absence, that sight of our reflection cannot bring us to Mitt Romney’s conclusion that “America must lead the world, or someone else will.”

I am not thinking about politics. Except as politics is our reflection in the pond which we, like Narcissus, assume is real, and, because it is real, it is worth fighting, struggling, even dying for. All 300 million of us at once looking into the same pond. Like Narcissus, we make idols of ourselves, each of us individually, and all of us together.

Usefulness is what is not there

Usefulness is what is not there

And we forget that

idols usurp the place of the truth and block its way. By providing a substitute for the real article, idols induce their worshipers to cease their quest for enlightenment, be it religious or scientific. Whatever yearning may have goaded the seekers into further inquiry is quelled by the counterfeit. Idolatry is the error that cuts off the means of correcting error (4).

Don’t expect me to make sense of what I am saying. It undoubtedly sounds like post-modern skeptical nihilism or something. It’s not. It’s about my personal struggle to learn to live—not desperately or with grief—in the vanishing point which is, after all, where I am.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there

I’m mixing up philosophy with religion with politics with personal angst with. . . I am a stranger to myself. Perhaps writing is profit. What I want is the usefulness of what is not there.
(1) Moisio, Olli-Pekka. “What it Means to be a Stranger to Oneself.” Educational Philosophy & Theory 41.5 (2009): 490-506.  (Moisio is a professor in the Department of Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä, Finland.)
(2) Reproduced in: Sorensen, Roy. “The Vanishing Point: A Model of the Self as an Absence.” Monist 90.3 (2007): 432-456.
(3) Agence France-Presse. “Romney: God wants America to lead.” Raw Story. Friday, October 7, 2011. Web. 08 Oct. 2011.
(4) Daston, Lorraine. “Scientific Error and the Ethos of Belief.” Social Research 72.1 (2005): 1-28.
(5) Lao Tsu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. by Gina-fu Feng and Jane English. New York: Vintage: 1997. Quoted in Sorenson.


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