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Are You Ready for BIG MAGIC? (Review Essay)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) September 26, 2015: Most liberals and progressives know that conservatives tend to appeal to fear. Figuratively speaking, conservatives are the Chicken Littles of American politics -- always sounding alarms and trying to arouse fear.

As a result, liberals and progressives may think that Elizabeth Gilbert's new aptly named self-help book BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015) is just the book for conservatives.

Wouldn't it be great if conservatives overcame their fear? Unfortunately, however, Gilbert's discussion of fear is not one of the strengths of her book.

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Nevertheless, the philosophy of the human person that she in effect works with is compatible with the philosophy of the human participation that the French philosopher Louis Lavelle (1883-1951) works out in the three short books of his that have been translated into English:

(1) THE DILEMMA OF NARCISSUS, translated by W. T. Gairdner (1973; orig. French ed., 1939);

(2) EVIL AND SUFFERING, translated by Bernard Murchland (1963; orig. French ed., 1940);

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(3) THE MEANING OF HOLINESS, translated by Dorothea O'Sullivan (1954; orig. French ed., 1951).

Lavelle's books are not easy to read, because of his roundabout sentence structures. But his books repay careful study.

At times, Lavelle was referred to as a Christian existentialist -- like Gabriel Marcel. Both Lavelle and Marcel were Roman Catholics. But Lavelle claims that his philosophy of human participation is compatible with the well-known Chinese thought about Tao. But Pope Francis has not claimed that about his Jesuit spirituality, even though it can also be claimed of Jesuit spirituality's orientation toward finding God in all things. Finding God in all things is equivalent to finding Tao in all things.

Now, what Lavelle refers to as metaphysical anxiety can also be referred to as existential anxiety. At its root, existential anxiety is based on fear.

In THE DILEMMA OF NARCISSUS, Lavelle uses the commonly used non-inclusive terms "man" and "he" to describe the common human condition, which liberals and progressives may be inclined to think of as especially characteristic of certain American conservatives today:

"He is suspicious of differences, as though his individual essence were being impugned, or himself attacked. Should he suspect in the difference the least sign of superiority, should it merely elude his comprehension or turn the eyes of others away from him, he at once feels disparaged, then abandoned, forgotten and rejected by the universe which he FEARS will finally swallow him up. The appearance of the 'other than myself' is a vision of the universe subsisting without me, and shutting me out" (page 137; my capitalization).

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In his perceptive essay "Those Who Are Separated and United" in EVIL AND SUFFERING (pages 93-152), Lavelle uses one of his typical roundabout sentences to say the following:

"We may well think that this [metaphysical and existential] anxiety is very primitive [i.e., rooted in very early childhood experiences], if it is true that the infant's most despairing cry is not the one he utters when he feels physical pain but rather when he feels himself abandoned, when he no longer sees familiar faces around him and when all his contacts with the universe seem to him suddenly broken off. Let us not diminish the value of such DISTRESS by saying that it is purely organic; it is the very birth of self-consciousness. In the deepest moments of life it reappears. And no philosophy can attain to the heart of being without taking it as a point of departure" (pages 99-100; my capitalization).

Elsewhere in EVIL AND SUFFERING, Lavelle refers to the principle of distress and the principle of consolation (pages 17, 100, and 113). Evidently, he is not familiar with Jesuit spirituality, or at least he does not happen to refer explicitly to Jesuit spirituality. However, in Jesuit spirituality, it is common to speak of consolation and desolation (distress).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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