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Thursday, 16 March 2017

At All Costs - Determination as an Absolute


It's weird, growing up with two mentalities. It's also very noticeable - one gets the sense that everybody else has a much better idea of who they are and what they think. This is obviously universal, but I suspect that it's of greater magnitude for some children of immigrants.

In the longer term, however, I think this initial dichotomy has some of the same mental advantages as bilingualism. One is forced to synthesise and rationalise across the yawning gulf between cultures, which can lead, I think, to a much better understanding of both worlds being straddled. Or, of course, to psychic self destruction, but let's try to keep it cheerful.

With that in mind, I've been thinking of one of the favourite precepts of my adolescence. It comes very much from the eastern side of my mental landscape, and even then at a bit of a remove, being yet another of the Japanese thoughts my master was so fond of.
"Even if one's head were to be suddenly cut off, he should still be able to perform one more action with certainty."
This has been lodged in my head for my entire adult life, and it's only recently I've begun to properly understand it. Initially, I absorbed it mainly for its machismo value. Whenever I found myself in a workplace which required or encouraged people to put up inspirational quotes, this was my first option. In retrospect, my first option should have been to tender my resignation. In any case, my superficial understanding of the idea at the time was that one should push through, Nike Just Do It style, through any and all obstacles, gung-ho, implacable, and invincible. Unsurprisingly, this proved quite toxic, as all impossible standards tend to when they are actually taken seriously.

What I had failed to understand was the underlying acceptance implied in this concept. Printing something like this on a T-shirt or coffee mug has vaguely uber-mensch-ian overtones, but the reality couldn't be further from that kind of garbage. It's about the context of determination. When one is determined to do something, that determination exists free from consequence or contingency and, more importantly, from purpose. Performing an action after being decapitated has startlingly exact parallels with Camus' views on the Sisyphean nature of life. When once we accept the absurdity of our existence in the face of mortality, freedom and power to act can and should result.

Which has me questioning how far that initial dichotomy actually existed beyond the superficial. It's unsurprising that a modern French author and philosopher and a mediaeval warrior cult should package their ideas differently, but it's surprising (to me, at least) just how similar their ideas actually are. This leads me to wonder about this supposed difference between east and west, and whether it's not all, in the end, simply a question of packaging.


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