The Personalist Project

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Accessed on December 05, 2019 - 10:22:18

Self-preoccupation not necessarily selfish

Katie van Schaijik, Dec 01, 2011

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.