I was just reading something entitled “Enlightenment Fears, Fears of Enlightenment” by Lorraine Daston, a woman who happens to be director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. She was writing of the headiness of the shift from relaxing into the arms of God to independence and assuming godliness, that shift into the Enlightenment.
But the price of detachment was often solitude, and the price of solitude could be madness. Cut loose from the web of sociability, released from the reciprocal accommodations of sympathy and diversion that “busy” us in conversation, the imagination invents a counter-self and a counter-world. Lovelier and livelier than the real self and world, the fata morgana of the imagination draws the solitaire ever farther from reality, both social and natural. To be mad was no longer, as it was in the seventeenth century, to suffer an excess of black bile, or to be possessed by demons; it was to prefer a personal world of the imagination to the shared world of society. It was, in other words, the ultimate form of independence. Hence the terror of madness precisely among Enlightenment intellectuals who hallowed independence, who fled Unmündigkeit [immaturity – the state of being before coming of age]. Their incessant warnings against the seductions of the imagination indicate how loose they gauged the grip of reason and reality to be. Pace its Romantic critics, the doyens of the Enlightenment did not scorn the imagination; they paid it the respectful compliment of honest fear.
I’ve spent the last two days in virtual isolation. Great for reading and thinking. Great for getting the kitchen grease off the metal surfaces and the dried bell pepper slices unstuck off the floor. But not good for the mind.
Too much think-time. Too much reflection on the failure of the body and the lack of will to do anything about it, on the fear of the end of an income. Too much time to think about the limitations of connections with the world around me. A mini touch of madness.
Have been thinking about that time in Argentina when, after eight days mostly in solitude (a dream come true) I found myself squirming with the fear of self and the chagrin of the discovery that I had never faced those fears. And about the conversations with several people who have gone to Kyoto for ten day zazen meditation sessions, who all told me the same experience comes over them about the seventh or eighth day.
It’s an easy place to avoid, this fear of self and of the imagination. So easy to keep busy. Distraction is sanity.
Life has been good to me and granted me time for reflection.
It has also given me clothes. And it’s time to do the laundry.
November 2, 2003