Assert Yourself

The below video is a nice introduction to existentialism. And so is this brief passage written by historian Carlin Barton in her great book, Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (University of California Press 2001, 31-32):

On the morning of June 6, 1989, a riveting series of photographs appeared on the front page of the Union News in Springfield, Massachusetts; it showed a young Chinese man in a white shirt casually blocking with his body the advance of a line of tanks into Tiananmen Square. […]

This was the Roman descrimen, the “moment of truth,” the equivocal and ardent moment when, before the eyes of others, you gambled what you were. This was the agon, the contest, when the truth was not so much revealed as created, realized, willed in the most intense and visceral way, the truth of one’s being, the truth of being.

When, before the eyes of the enemy Etruscans and their king and commander Porsena, Livy’s would-be assassin Marcius was threatened with torture by fire, the unarmed youth confounded the enemy by thrusting his right hand into the flames of the altar and standing, unflinching, while it burned. He said to the king, “See how cheaply men hold their bodies when they set their sights on glory” (2.12.13). With those words and that gesture he responded to the threat of torture. […]

As the art historian Bettina Bergmann points out, the Romans had a taste for moments of high tension, frozen instants of “explosive emotions,” “excruciating suspended animation,” “moments of decision”: Medea contemplating her children with  a dagger on her lap; the sacrificial bull poised to receive the blow of the ax; the wounded gladiator anticipating the death blow; Phaedra clasping her letter to Hippolytus; Helen resisting the blandishments of Paris. Because of their desire to find and express the “truth” of their being in action, the Romans were eager to interpret any and every confrontation as an ordeal, an opportunity for the exercise of will.

How do you stake your being? Selfishly, sacrificially? Violently, nonviolently? Competitively, cooperatively?

Or are you in bad faith most of the time, pretending you have no choices to make or that you’re an utterly determined thing, like a stone (what Jean Paul Sartre called a being-in-itself as opposed to what each of us actually is, a being-for-itself, a being with choices)?

Sartre once illustrated bad faith this way (I’m paraphrasing): during a dinner date, a man (call him Frank) slips his hand under the table and rests it upon a woman’s knee (call her Indie for indecisive). Indie pretends that Frank’s hand is not there. The muscles in her thigh go limp. She keeps on talking as if nothing has happened. She acts as if Frank’s hand has no more significance than a napkin. Indie does this because she realizes that any decisive response she makes (either toward or away from Frank’s gesture, or to discuss it with him directly) entails a choice of her being, and she does not want to make that choice. So she fakes it. She stalls for time. She is in bad faith.

How about you? When are you going to stop cheating and faking your way through life, face difficult truths, and explicitly choose your way of being in the world, staking yourself–taking chances?

I’m speaking now to all cowards, myself included.

Will you always be Oedipus, unable to face the truth of your being, your eyes in your hands?

This is the work of life.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to Assert Yourself

  1. Facing reality! or is it ? or maybe just a `
    It’s not an episode of Lost or the final show of Gilligan’s Island. Every time you open your eyes you might just be waking up behind the controls of a plane about to land on the Hudson river. You might have just been given the task to run 26.2 miles across the plain of Marathon, to your death or that of democracy. Maybe your job today is to fix the clock that will inspire Einstein unless it is broken so he’ll think of the broken thing instead of relativity of time. When you get home from work today, be thankful that you did not get eaten by a tiger today. Eat a deforestation burger with processed cheese, sit back, relax, drink a beer that cost more than a days wages for the kid that made your shirt for you.
    When you top hiding from reality it kind of looks like that… at least to me.

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