The Personalist Project

Over at Ricochet this morning, Claire Berlinski links to a letter to the editor to the New York Review of Books that has an interesting paragraph from a personalist point of view. [My bold.]

Didion complains that Woody Allen is stuck in the “fairly recent” notion of finding or making or inhabiting the self, as a central obsession. She’s right that it’s recent: those who trace it back to Augustine are exaggerating, a little. But surely the literature of “recent” centuries is richer for the works of people who’ve made this same faux pasIt’s what modern narrative art is mostly about, and Didion is sophomoric (“adolescent?”) in complaining that Woody Allen hasn’t managed to rehabilitate pre-modern modes of being, such as “attaining grace.” 

It reminds me of a Henri de Lubac passage in our quotation rotation:

To accuse of egoism certain people who seem to think only of themselves is to be lacking in charity. Perhaps they are merely faithful to a duty towards themselves which is for them the first form of their duty towards their neighbor. Perhaps they have an imperious need to seek and express themselves. Perhaps they forget themselves better like this, escape better from their egotistic selves, than in active tasks, seemingly more disinterested. Perhaps they have a mission to bring to light some dark element, which, in the depths of themselves, demands to be born, and which is to become the good of everyone. Without a number of these seeming egoists, how poverty-stricken humanity would be!

Both implicitly acknowledge the phonemon that is of central concern to us, namely the emerging interest in personal selfhood evident across the modern age.  Both challenge the idea that it nothing more than egotism.  Both see its fruitful possiblities.

Needless to say, this "sense of selfhood" is exposed to all kinds of dangers and distortions.  In a way, we could say it's responsible for the characteristic errors and evils of our time.  But it is likewise responsible for  great achievements, and if we reject it outright we are guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Comments (2)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Dec 1, 2011 1:17pm

Good for Claire Berlinski.

It would be interesting to compare her insight, with some of the things von Hildebrand writes in Liturgy and Personality about the "unclassical" sins, sufferings, and errors, that he believes are typical of the modern age.

These unclassical experiences are clearly related to the increased attention modern persons give to their own selfhood and subjectivity. "The unclassical man," Hildebrand writes, "is absorbed in illusory problems, problems which originate in a subjective cramp; he is tormented by self-engendered problems." And: "Sufferings from boredom, self-hatred, one's inferiority complex, the impossibility of giving up self-analysis and falling in love are specifically unclassical sufferings."

What is missing in von Hildebrand, not in general, but in this context, is any positive evaluation of this modern state of affairs. Whereas De Lubac and Berlinsky see great goods coming out of modernities increased self-awareness, von Hildebrand seems to see it mainly as a disease: "...people who are burdened with unclassical sins are already warped and desubstantialized in their spiritual powers, ...they must become spiritually healthy before they can become holy."

As Helvi Moore mentions, the classical person is clearly the ideal person for von Hildebrand. Is this ideal perhaps too objective?

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Dec 1, 2011 1:35pm

Quick correction: Claire linked the letter as an example of an effective panning.  She didn't write it.

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