Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cho Seung-Hui, Epistemological Casualty

The New York Times of Wednesday, April 18, 2007 begins its center front page story: “Cho Seung-Hui rarely spoke to his own dormitory roommate.” The New York Post of the same day expatiates: “Incredibly, some of the other male students who lived with Cho , John and Andy in the dorm suite didn’t even know his name.” The Post went on: “John said the girl’s parents called cops after Cho found her at her dorm, introduced himself as ‘Question Mark’ and began leaving messages on a dry-erase board outside her door.

“Question Mark’ was the nickname other students on campus had given the increasingly isolated loner because he refused to pout his name down on a roster for an English-literature class last semester – instead of writing a question mark in its place.”

Further on, The Post said, “Cho spent his spare time playing video games, particularly ‘Counter-Strike,’ in which players join terror groups and try to shoot each other.”


It seems that this boy was trapped within himself. Such entrapment has the makings of hell, and hence implies the presence of the demonic. If God is three Persons Who are Relations, then to be alone for a being made in the image of these Relations is an internal ontological contradiction. Hence, it is “not good” for man to be alone. The suffering involved here is not that of developing “muscles” but of decomposition.

I would hazard the guess that this entrapment is aided and abetted by the cyber-technology that has been created for communication and relationality, but in fact hermetically seals the person into a virtual state of self-absorption. The relationality achieved on the cell phone and e-mail seems to be more informational than inter-personal; particularly on the cell-phone which by definition is almost always an adjunct to “multi-tasking.” You always –by definition – find the person doing something else while talking to you. Your call has interrupted them. I always find myself asking the person where they are and what they’re doing so as to situate them in the horizon of subjectivity where we can exchange “I” to “Thou.” It really is a change of epistemological horizons, concretely from object to subject. I try to locate myself in their subjective situation and mental and emotional involvement at the moment, and then, letting them know that I am respectful of it, invite them freely into a subjective exchange. I am trying to draw them into a personal, and therefore, subjective interchange. I think we all experience that e-mail is a “cool” medium in comparison to the fixed, wired phone which tends to be “hot,” or at least, “hotter.” Concerning e-mail, when I want to test the waters on a particular topic, it feels much safer – because “cooler” - to enter with e-mail rather than the phone, which, being confrontational, is “hot.”

I personally find myself viscerally annoyed by seeing more than half the people I encounter on street and bus – not to speak of following a person in a car who is speaking on the cell-phone – talking away and oblivious of me and the here and now of what they are doing. It visually renders street or bus what I most fear: a landscape, no, a desert, of isolated individuals. I am not only alone, but I am positively excluded from a relationship with them. We don’t have this place and this activity in common. And somehow, I need that. Just to be with people makes the city a great place where we share weather, street, traffic, delays, parking. The suburbs slay me with their bucolic indifference. I am singularly depressed in beautiful suburbs where nobody knows anybody, and no one is on the street. This, apart from the person walking down the street with the ear piece and carrying on a conversation with - from a visual take - nobody. From a perception point of view, they are either talking to me (which they are not), or they have completely shut me out from the relationality that I seem to need and crave, or they are crazy. Not being the latter, I am offended. They are not walking on my street. They are not in my world. They are not driving on the same road that I am. They are not in the here and now. They and I are not in the same epistemological horizon. Nor are they in the here and now. We are each alone. They are communicating from behind a control panel where the self reigns supreme. They are into self and are in control. They are God.

Which means that they are in Hell. They are imprisoned. They are bored, and they don’t know it. This opens the way to consider the origin of the word “bored.” Walker Percy nails it in his “Lost in the Cosmos:”

“(10) The Bored Self: Why the Self is the only Object in the Cosmos which Gets Bored

The word boredom did not enter the language until the eighteenth century. No one knows its etymology. One guess is that "bored" may derive from the French verb bourrer, to stuff - concretely, to be "stuffed" with the self.

Question: Why was there no such word before the eighteenth century?

(a) Was it because people were not bored before the eighteenth century? (But wasn’t Caligula bored?)
(b) Was it because people were bored but didn’t have a word for it?
(c) Was it because people were to busy trying to stay alive to get bored? (But what about the idle English royalty and noblemen?)
(d) Is it because there is a special sense in which for the past two or three hundred years the self has perceived itself as a leftover [me: reductionism/objectification by conceptualizing] which cannot be accounted for by its own objective view of the world and that in spite of an ever heightened self-consciousness, increased leisure, ever more access to cultural and recreational facilities, ever more instruction on self-help, self-growth, self-enrichment, the self feels ever more imprisoned in itself – no, worse than imprisoned because a prisoner at least knows he is imprisoned and sets store by the freedom awaiting him and the world to be open, when in fact the self is not and it is not – a state of affairs which has to be called something besides imprisonment – e.g., boredom. Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself.”

I Repeat From Yesterday: The Great Danger: To Live on the Surface of Ourselves

The real danger is not to engage the self in action. The real danger is to extrinsically “perform.” We tend not to experience our own depth, our own meaning and ontological density and weight. We tend not to engage the inner self – the “I.” This great weakness consists in turning back on self, doing everything our way, and being trapped therein. As we have seen, Tolkien’s Ring of Power is a powerful icon and metaphor.

Benedict said to the Swiss bishops last November (paraphrasing St. Gregory the Great): “When man is entirely caught up in his own world, with material things, with what he can do, with all that is feasible and brings him success, with all that he can produce or understand by himself, then his capacity to perceive God weakens, the organ sensitive to God deteriorates, it becomes unable to perceive and sense, it no longer perceives the Divine, because the corresponding inner organ has withered, it has stopped developing.

“When he overuses all the other organs, the empirical ones, it can happen that it is precisely the sense of God that suffers, that this organ dies, and man, as St. Gregory says, no longer perceives God’s gaze, to be looked at by him, the fact that his precious gaze touches me!

“I maintain that St. Gregory the Great has described exactly the situation of our time – in fact, his was an age very similar to ours. And the question still arises: what should we do?

“I hold that the first thing to do is what the Lord tells us…, and which St. Paul cries to us in God’s Name: ‘Your attitude must be Christ’s…”
[2] And that attitude is service and self-gift to death.

Cyber-Technology (Tolkien’s Ring) and The Self

Robert Wright: New York Times, op-ed, 4/17/07 A 27

“I have a theory: the more e-mail there is, the more Prozac there will be, and the more Prozac there is, the more e-mail there will be….

“It’s an old story. Technological change makes society more efficient and less personal. We know more people more shallowly. The sociologist David Riesman’s 1950 book about his era’s part in this process was called ‘The Lonely Crowd’…

“The reason we’ve always carved out a place for deep human contact is because we deeply need it. Some contours of the mind are so firm they lead us to selectively defy the imperative of growing efficiency. Ultimately, technological evolution hoes had to accommodate human nature.

“Until now. Now we enter the age of pharmacology and approach the age of genetic engineering. We can, in effect, change human nature to accommodate technological evolution. If the deft use of e-mail makes each of us more successful, we may, one by one, amend the structure of our selves until we are the optimal e-mail animals. And so, too, with the next empowering information technology: bend us, shape us, anyway it wants us.

“If we’re indeed already entering this era, I can’t say I’m especially enjoying it. Then again, I haven’t tried Prozac. Yet.”

* * * * * * *

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

The Flowing Stream

“Prisons of FINITUDE! Like every other being, man is born in many prisons. Soul, body, thought, intuition, endeavor: everything about him has a limit, is itself tangible limitation; everything is a This and a That, different from other things and shunned by them. From the grilled windows of the sense each person looks out to the alien things which he will never be Even if his spirit could fly through the spaces of the world like a bird, he himself will never be this space, and the furrow which he traces in the air vanishes immediately and leaves no lasting impression. How far it is from one being to its closest neighbor! And even if they love each other and wave to one another from island to island, even if they attempt to exchange solitudes and pretend they have unity, how much more painfully does disappointment then fall upon them when they touch the invisible bars – the cold glass pane against which they hurl themselves like captive birds. No on e can tear down his own dungeon; no one knows who inhabits the next cell. Conjecture can grope its way from man to woman, from child to adult, even less than it can from human being to animal. Beings are alien to one another, even if they do stand beautifully by one another and complement one another like colors, like water and stone, like sun and fog: even if they do communally perfect the resounding harmony of the universe. Variegation pays the price of a bitter separation. The mere fact of existing as an individual constitutes renunciation. The limpid mirror has been shattered, the infinite image has been shattered over the face of the world, the world has become a heap of fragments. But every single splinter remains precious, and from each fragment there flashes a ray of the mystery of its origin. And infinite good can be detected in the finite good: the promise of greater things, the possibility of breaking through, an enticement so sweet the our pulse falters for keen delight, when the marvel – conferring a boundless bliss – suddenly discloses itself for a few moments, free of its concealment, and presents itself open and naked, stripped of the ashen garment of custom.”[3]

Jailhouse and Cocoon

“You are in prison and I am in prison. I know, Lord, that you are in your prison for my sake and that you remain in yours only because I remain in mine. Both of them belong together; both are one and the same dungeon. If you could succeed in freeing me from my confinement, you too would be free. The dividing wall between us would topple and we would both enjoy the same freedom. I, too, could perhaps free you by freeing myself, and in this case as well we would both be freed. But that’s just it! This is precisely what you can’t do and what I myself can’t do.

“I know your secret; you want to share my destiny. But I am deeply buried within myself and I cannot burst open the gates to this hell. Yu thought it would be easier for two, and you offered to help me. You buried yourself in my cave. But, because my solitude is lonely, yours also became lonely. And now we wait one for the other, separated by this wall. I well know that the fault lies with me, and not at all with you. You have done everything that was possible. You have suffered, Made atonement in my place, paid for everything in advance down to the last drop. But there is one thing you can’t do, and this is something I can’t do either. I should… but I cannot. I should want to, but I don’t. I wish I could want to, but I don’t want to want to. How do things stand then?” How can this be? I don’t understand it. They say you blotted out sin and made atonement for it. They say you effaced sin, not just covered it over, and that henceforth it no longer exists in the eyes of God. And yet sin is precisely this: that I do not want what God wants. And I can’t see how this opposition on my part could be broken. I can’t see how this prison wall which holds me captive could be pierced through….”[4]

The Solution

Since the hard-wiring of the human person images the divine Persons, there is an ontological tendency in us to be like God by becoming relational. That means that we yearn to escape from ourselves, to give ourselves radically. We are awaiting the call from without to take the leap of generosity to give it all, the whole self.

We have been loved from before the creation of the world, and we are loved now. This is called “grace.” It is the supreme affirmation. It gives us an identity as person and empowers us to make the gift of ourselves. But someone must call. It is Christ standing – risen- from the tomb calling us Lazarus-like from our tomb. It is the call to greatness, to give the whole self.

Those who act in the person of Christ, and fathers of families who stand in His place, must call the young person to give all. Rohr says: “We are wired for transcendence and greatness, it seems. Watch it on the faces or high school students at pep rallies, sports events, and any group gathering. They are wanting and expecting and looking for greatness, significance, a compelling vision for life, a challenge, holiness, even God. Children and teenagers are unbelievably hopeful by nature; all of their life is out in front of them. If that big picture is not given to them – through contact with bigger people and at special windows of opportunity – young people will seek to fulfill the expectation in other ways: big crowds, loud music, marching armies, totally unrealistic fantasies, fame (or infamy!), money, and popularity. Anything loud, large, or socially admired becomes the substitute for the cosmic and the transcendent that they are really longing for. Someone needs to tell them that, even if they only half-believe it.

“If there is no contact with greatness, there is an almost cosmic disappointment inside of us, a deep sadness, a capacity for cynical dismissal and sullen coldness, exactly as we see in so many or our young today. The visionary gleam is lost. It is as if they are saying, ‘There are no great people or great patterns. I will not believe in anything/ I will not be disappointed again.’ It is called postmodernism, and it is the general assumption of our jaded an uninitiated society. But do note that it is not the presence of pain or suffering that destroys the brain; rather it is the lack of larger-than-life people around us.”[5]

[1] Walker Percy, “Lost in the Cosmos,” Noonday Press (1983) 70-71.
[2] November 7 Papal Homily to Swiss Bishops, published December 10, 2006.
[3] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, “Heart of the World, Ignatius (1979) 19-20.
[4] Ibid 133-134.
[5] Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return,” Crossroad (2004) 20.

1 comment:

alex said...

The thoughts evoked by the dream stir up associations which were not noticeable in the dream itself...