Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Calypso, work, love, and the individual

My older son really likes the Percy Jackson books.  This is a series aimed at young adults (I think more specifically young adult boys) that follows a modern-day demigod son of Poseidon.  Anyway, I have been reading this series on and off to my boys over the past year or two; we’re on the fourth book of five now. 

In the most recent chapter we read, Percy finds himself on Calypso’s island of Ogygia, where like Odysseus, he is tempted to stay with Calypso, making love and enjoying a paradise on earth.  However, the author (Rick Riordan) fleshes out Calypso’s backstory, making her an interesting, three-dimensional tragic hero instead of a treacherous sexpot.  Riordan’s Calypso is herself condemned to Ogygia as a sort of luxurious prison.  She has done nothing wrong, but as the daughter of Atlas, who fought against the Olympian gods in the long-ago war, she is suspect for her sympathies with the Titans, so the gods keep her isolated from the world.  There’s a lot to unpack here about how we define good guys and bad guys, and how often we side with our kin in a conflict where no side possesses a clear moral high ground.

But what I want to talk about is the topic of love and how it fits into a fulfilling life.  Riordan’s rendering of Calypso is a tragic hero because she is stuck on her island isolated from the rest of the world, and can only share the island with someone who elects to stay there for eternity.  Anyone who makes that decision will be waited on by invisible servants (as Calypso is), will be granted immortality, and will live on a tropical/Mediterranean paradise island.  He can share his days with the beautiful, enticing Calypso, the sweet-smelling forest of cinnamon and herbs, the docile birds of the forest, and tend to a magical garden.  But he won’t know what is happening in the real world, won’t be able to participate in history, to help his friends or the world in general to overcome their problems.  The Fates occasionally (every thousand years or so) send a hero to Ogygia, like Odysseus, that Calypso falls madly in love with and who she wants to stay on the island, but Calypso can never have him, because his noble longing to help others in the world (which is of course what makes him so attractive to begin with) obliges him to opt out of the island paradise, as appealing as it is.  Pretty heady stuff for a teen adventure novel.

Percy’s encounter with Calypso (whom he falls in love with but ultimately decides to leaves) got me thinking about what we love in a romantic partner, and what it would be like to spend an eternity on a paradise island with that person.  Let’s get out of the way one thing—Riordan’s Calypso isn’t that interesting of a person, because she hasn’t really been around other people or events or the larger world for millennia.  She loves hearing about Percy’s life and adventures, his descriptions of Manhattan, but I’m not sure what subjects she has to talk to him about.  I understand that Percy is enchanted by, perhaps even truly in love with, Calypso just for who she is—her smell, her eyes, her way of talking, of thinking, of gardening.  And this is ideally what we love in a person, their essence, not what they’ve done in life.  But I don’t think this is realistic in the long term.  Your essence is shaped by what you do, what you’ve lived.  In turn the way you, or another, can get to know your essence is precisely by seeing you act on the world.  So I’m not sure it’s possible in real life to love someone “just for who they are” without regard to their interactions with the larger world.

I love my wife fiercely, and I love how she smells and talks and thinks.  She’s the most interesting person I know, and the only person I can see myself spending a lifetime or an eternity with.  But I don’t know if I could just sit on an island looking into her eyes for eternity.  Most of what we talk about isn’t some idealized concept of who each one is, divorced from reality.  No, we talk about the world, our friends, our enemies, our family, politics, poverty, development, values, novels, movies, our kids.  In short, the relationship between us is profoundly shaped by the world around us, and I think that’s the case for any relationship between two people.  Perhaps what I love most about my wife, and what I think of when I think of who she is, is how she works, how she acts in the world. 

Even when we talk about ourselves, it’s with respect to what we’ve lived through, our personal stories, some of which are from long ago but most of which are being constantly nourished as we continue to live life.  My kids are probably the people I’d be most willing to just stare at and hear them talk or watch them play idly, and love them just for who they are. Hell, they’ve only got a few years of lived experience under their belt, much of which they no longer remember, so my love for them really is for them as they are and not so much for what they’ve done in life.  But even with my children, I don’t want to be around them all the time, and the feeling is mutual.  They want to engage with the rest of the world, and that engagement during the hours we’re apart, each at work or at school, then gives us interesting things to talk about and further explore our relationship in the time we are together.  

Calypso’s lived experience essentially stopped a few thousand years ago when she was sent to live on Ogygia (as would the experience of Odysseus or Percy Jackson if they chose to live there).  Sure, you could talk with her about her life before then, maybe you could talk about that for a few hundred years even.  But eventually in eternity you’d run out of things to talk about.  Even if you both had new reflections on your past experiences, whatever revelations would arise from such discussions wouldn’t be very useful, since you don’t live in a world you can apply those lessons to.

I mean, I guess you could just have sex all day on your island with the love of your life, or plant stuff in your garden, or commune with the birds, but I think that would kind of get old.  Even if it were possible to just live in the moment and enjoy each experience as it happened, each sunset, each birdsong, regardless of whether you’d heard them before, I for one would feel guilty living so well while I knew that other people in the world were suffering, and I would get bored living so tranquilly while I knew that the rest of the world was still happening, still moving.

In this respect I am a believer in the philosophy that humans are defined by our work, that our very uniqueness as human beings is contingent on our acting on the world around us.  This is a big theme in Paulo Freire’s thought, but I don’t think it’s that complicated or weird or radical.

Nevertheless, I try to be objective and critical enough to wonder if my vision not only of love but also of what defines us, and what makes a good life, is misled.  There are certainly people who believe that the individual person is the supreme measure of importance, in the sense that happiness for a person can lie in their own personal likes, pleasures, and desires, or that the ideal romantic love is for an individual person as such, without reference to the rest of the world or how that person interacts with it.  Indeed, I know plenty of people who don’t particularly care about their job, and just spend a lot of time getting through things they don’t like or care about in order to be with the people they love, or practice the hobby that fulfills them, or watch the TV or read the books that titillate them.   

I remember my American friend admiring this when we both lived in Spain.  Having grown up in our US culture where we define people to such a great extent by what they do for a living (despite the fact that many Americans fit the description above of not caring about their work), my friend thought it was really cool that Spaniards were often blasé about their work, and got most of their pleasure from family and friends.  Obviously Spaniards are just as diverse as anyone else in their opinions, but let’s pretend that the archetypal Spaniard I’m describing is accurate.  Such a person might argue that working in the world is a mere distraction from the things that give you pleasure, and that the best possible way to spend your time is to maximize your pleasurable pursuits.  For such a way of thinking, days and nights of idleness and lovemaking amidst pleasant surroundings would be the best way to spend eternity.

But I’ve tried to show above that I don’t think this is a viable conception of the world.  I don’t think any one person does or can exist apart from the world, so accordingly it’s impossible to appreciate or love another person as separate from the world (or even just to entertain your own self apart from the world).  That said, I realize that my conception of love and meaning may sound cynical or utilitarian or unromantic.  

Right now I’m living in West Africa, amid a culture that seems to have a very different concept of the individual than I am used to.  Here people define themselves to a large extent by their families, or even by their jobs (which are often passed on down family lines).  People don’t offer their name when you meet them unless you ask for it, their first names are one of a few possible names determined by the day they were born, and usually they’ll give you their  family name instead of their first name anyway.  And there are like the same 12 last names that cover about 80% of the population.  Families are big too, so kids live and are raised collectively, without receiving a lot of one-on-one adult attention or contemplation of their individual idiosyncrasies.  Marriages are often arranged for utilitarian purposes, and romantic love is not a central factor for many couples.  All that said, and despite the pride people take in their work, here the supreme measure of meaning is the family, specifically hanging out with your kids and with your elders.  Weekends are spent at funerals, weddings, baptisms of people who are only distantly and tenuously related to you.  So even here in a context as different as the American or Spanish ones I’ve generalized, it seems like my preferred focus on working in the world is missing something, missing the focus on immediacy and just enjoying other people that seems to be so prominent in many cultures.
I do want to appreciate each sunset as such, even if I’ve seen sunsets before.  I do want to find pleasure and meaning in the waves lapping on a beach, or in planting a (non-useful, just-because) garden, or in looking into my love’s eyes or smelling her hair.  I do want to just sit back and ponder my kids as they play or do Legos, and think of how wonderful they are and life is.  And I do do all these things.  But I don’t think you could or should spend eternity doing this.  Of course JosephCampbell might argue that those moments are in fact eternity, that our only taste of the eternal is when we smell our loved one’s hair or lose our gaze in the ocean.  For my money though, if I’ve got to be somewhere for eternity, it better be in the larger world, living for others and not just my own pleasure or contemplation.

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