There are times one may question one's life vision, all that makes up what Kenneth Burke calls the terministic screen, one's perception and symbolic action. The 'perception' part can be illustrated by the 2010 German documentary Die See der kleinen Monster about the Lembeh Strait and how a German vet and her partner discovered sea life never thought to be existent at 10-15 meters below the surface because nobody thought to look for it the way they did.
I write this because I feel myself failing in the resonance of my own perception; so little is in my hands and I have lost that fighting power that says: "I." I find myself somewhere between Isaiah Berlin's account of stoicism, according to which it is defeatist to privilege the interior life that one has control of over the agency one has in society, which he sees as promoting an era's collapse, and Julia Kristeva's account of Russian writers who keep one eye in hell, which sounds far uglier than what it means: akin to memento mori. Except that I do not agree entirely with either.
They are too literal: orienting human relations on too literal a plane - which soon descends into the eye for an eye mentality that none of us would like to partake of because let's face it, no matter how well meaning we are, we will all be seriously in debt. But our age insists on the literal. I read a book review recently that claimed the modern taboo to not be profanities but, and this is my interpretation of the author's word choice, a figurative understanding of life.
I will go so far as to say that it is this understanding that creates good art, and it is being lost. I take my cue from Shelley who in his Defense explains that where humour loses its ideal universality, wit takes its place and man laughs from self-complacency instead of pleasure. Man learns to laugh out of contempt, malignity, and sarcasm instead of “sympathetic merriment.” Obscenity emerges, a “blasphemy against the divine beauty in life” and becomes a monster fed by the corruption of society. How's that for a response to the book review.
For those willing to listen, there is much harm in adopting the wrong terministic screen which happens to be one of the points of Bacon's idols. In the context of self-questionning, it is still possible to speak of a human truth, if rarely presented in its complexity. Instead, in our age, inaccurate stories are told; long ago, Plutarch at the beginning of Lycurgus wrote about how much is called into question by the uncertainty of what we may call the screens. We are wont to reread Tristam Shandy with its Epictetian epigraph.
What has happened to the privileging of nuance and tone. This was taught by Peter Kussi, whose course The Writers of Prague opened the imagination to the interplay of meanings beneath the surface - like the meanings in R.U.R., the play which introduced the word 'robot' into English (unfortunately replacing the much more obvious word, αὐτόματον). He was as humble as the subtle messages he decoded with us, invisible to the occupiers.
To deny the figurative is to become a robot. Also, humility rarely mixes with profanities, at least where I am standing: a friend who works in a horrific international supermarket chain for below minimum wage doesn't use expletives; the only people I know who do, do so in 'their' company for regional reasons.
It is the abstract and figurative that gives us wings in difficulty. We can also abstract out of our lives to check the terministic screen. Lao Tzu writes, "Returning to one's destiny is known as the constant. Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment. Woe to him who innovates while ignorant of the constant."
The constant is that abstracting outwards to the place where metaphors may be created between one's narrow life and another's; a platform for innovation for the disinterested.
People congratulate themselves today on their coarse language. But it is not just Western prudishness that led to taboos. We may think of the Japanese byôbu, explained as "demarcating space and shielding ... from prying eyes". They are a beautiful example of schools and styles of craftsmanship. But surely we would want to constrain the view of ourselves as if we were ever capable of seeing the full picture, which we are not, we would be too disappointed at all the shortcomings, too constrained to the present, which denies the promise of what we may yet become.
The screen is liberation, if chosen well. In the Edo period, one different type of screen painted for a desk portrays a man crossing a bridge. This is among the ultimate symbols to my mind: the metaphor is the crossing over, connecting the figurative to the literal.
I hold fast to this constant, and trust discoveries may be made in one's own 10-15 meter midst if one can just tune in to the perception that is called for. The perception is never of it all, but the one glance called, 'enough' and 'insightful.'