The Small, The Great, and the Self-Esteem Myth

Last Sunday, I received an e-mail from a serious student who has been studying painting. She had taken a day trip to a nearby cape to enjoy the ocean view, and had come away with some difficult questions about the value of her artistic pursuits. In particular, she reflected that she would never be able to capture more than “a shadow” of the vastness and profound beauty of such a natural view, and therefore felt some futility about her artistic efforts. Against the “awe and wonder” she had experienced in that setting, she suddenly feared that her artistic aspirations might be trivial.

In reply to her mail, I introduced Socrates’ account of art, in Book X of The Republic, in which painting is portrayed as the act of copying a “real” sense object that is itself a mere copy of an idea, from which this student cleverly surmised that Socrates’ hypothesis would reduce her to “a shadow who paints a shadow of a shadow.”

The very next day, coincidentally, another student, who aspires to be a writer, struck this same note of concern from a different direction. She told me of a trendy Korean author who publicly encourages young writers, such as creative writing students, to stop hesitating due to “feeling small.” Instead, this popular mentor urges his admirers to free themselves from the feelings of inadequacy that restrict self-expression, and “just move forward with your writing.”

My immediate response to that advice — advice so consistent with the spirit of this age of “self-esteem” and “believing in yourself” — was this: “But what if the writer really is small? Shouldn’t he feel small, then? Is it better to lie to yourself for the sake of ‘moving forward’ with expressing your small, insignificant ideas?” This response pleased my student immensely, as it seemed to organize some scattered thoughts in her own mind, or to vindicate her own instinctive resistance to such ego-boosting advice.

We went on to discuss the popular author’s perspective more broadly. Think of Kafka, I suggested, who published relatively little in his lifetime, because he believed most of his work was not good enough for publication. His most famous short story, one of the few he published while alive, is about a man who suddenly recognizes himself, and is seen by others, as a giant bug — incomprehensible, ugly, dirty, repugnant, and a shameful obstacle in the lives of those nearest to him.

Kafka’s writing — most of which was polished and published by his friend Max Brod after his death, and against Kafka’s explicit wishes, has become exemplary, if not definitive, of the highest end of modern art. He revealed both a psychological state and a peculiar condition of modern political life so incisively, originally, and compellingly, that we now use the word “Kafkaesque” to name this recognizable but previously indescribable human experience — an experience which, although perhaps vaguely understood by many thoughtful men in late modernity, actually has no other name but the one derived from that of the only man to capture it fully in written language.

Can we say, without simply being ridiculous, that Kafka would have been a better writer if only he had stopped “feeling small” and just moved forward with his writing without so much self-doubt? Would he have “found his voice” and learned to “express himself” more completely if he had developed healthier self-esteem? Or must we not conclude, on the contrary, that his tragicomic emotional tendency — a consistent psychological current throughout his life — to perceive himself as something vaguely insect-like, unworthy and offensive, was actually essential to his grandest insights?

And Kafka’s case, though perhaps the most obvious, is far from unique. Without a similarly paralyzing and stifling experience of inadequacy or insignificance, there could be no Hamlet, no Crime and Punishment. Those two works, which stand among the peaks of world literature, would lose their central themes without the pain of that experience. Nor could those works have been written at all by authors who were not themselves intimately familiar with such pain.

Socrates never wrote his theories, and indeed went to his grave claiming that he had no ultimate knowledge to impart, in spite of having devoted his entire adult life to nothing else but the search for genuine knowledge. His glory lay partly in his insistence — the definitive lesson of the definitive teacher — that lifelong failure in the essential pursuit of human life is no grounds for abandoning that pursuit, nor for lowering one’s aim in the name of “moving forward” more successfully.

We know that Aristotle and his school identified Socrates as a melancholic, in the literal Greek medical sense of having a temperament determined by an excess of black bile. In fact, the Peripatetic scholars, following their teacher, went so far as to claim that history’s truly great philosophers, artists, and statesmen were all, or nearly all, subject to the disease of melancholia. This striking hypothesis, coming from the ancient psychologist least likely to engage in flights of speculative fancy, holds an important key to the issue we are discussing here. For what is more intrinsic to genuine melancholy (as opposed to today’s self-indulgent “depression” and fashionable nihilism) than the oppressive sense — always lingering, sometimes acute — that life, particularly one’s own life, is futile or meaningless? This oppressive sense, combined with the tendency to emotional extremes also essential to the melancholic temperament as the ancients understood it, is somehow inherently connected to the most intensely lived lives, the lives we would identify as truly great, whether in the public or private sphere. (It must be recalled that Socrates himself, the most famous of philosophers, was in truth a private man who openly rejected public life, and whose lasting fame is the product of others’ efforts to preserve his teachings and character for posterity.)

In general, then, serious art and thought do not arise from rejecting the melancholic’s feeling of smallness, but rather from redeeming it, by which I mean overcoming it in the Nietzschean sense. (Nietzsche himself being one of the most obvious melancholics among modern thinkers.) The experience of doubting one’s worth, questioning the value of one’s efforts, and even suffering the occasional fit of sincere self-contempt, far from being simple barriers to great achievement or spiritual growth, may be the preconditions of such achievement and growth. Conversely, the lack of such feelings — the comfortable confidence of the man of “healthy self-esteem” — may reveal a lower potential for development, if the Aristotelians are correct.

But why should that be the case? This ancient hypothesis certainly seems counterintuitive in modern terms. What advantage could the pain and hesitation of self-doubt, or the paralysis of anxiety about the ultimate meaning of one’s existence, bring to one’s life?

Here is one answer. All growth occurs against resistance. Necessity — not contentedness — is the mother of invention. The apparently inexhaustible flow of ideas and “creativity” that characterize great artists and thinkers is in reality neither inexhaustible nor a flow. On the contrary, it is more like a prolonged outburst, or a sustained series of outbursts — restrained energy finding weak spots in its confining walls and suddenly shooting through. The restrictive container itself provides the conditions and impetus for growth, by producing the painful need that calls forth invention.

The most restrictive container, however, is the one we build around ourselves, the walls that squeeze and bind us in self-doubt, self-contempt, even self-mockery. Hence, to find the weak spots and burst through those walls will result in the most violent — and therefore the most spectacular — outbursts, due to the extremity and duration of the pressure under which the escaping energy has been restrained. Where there is little resistance or constraint, like a slack bowstring, the force of the release will be mild, and quickly dissipate. But where the soul’s string is so tight that the man fears he may snap, the release — if it finally happens — will be explosive. 

To return, then, to the student questions with which we began: The experience of insignificance or unworthiness when confronting the enormity of life and nature, or the paralyzing awareness of inadequacy against the challenge of greatness, are truly terrible limits to serious growth, production, and achievement. But for that very reason, they are also indispensable conditions of growth, production, and achievement. Development happens against limits, and the harsher the limits, the greater the potential for development.

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