Contemplating Intentionality and the Divided Subject

I’m not feeling great this morning.

Yesterday I was feeling over-tired and deflated. Then — this may be related — I lapsed in my self-control, and overdid it with food and drink. Around 5:00 pm, I began a binge. I ate way too many calories in too short a period at the end of the day: almost half the day’s calories (1305/2658) were between 7:45 pm and 9:30 pm. This process started with a shot of tequila, which was followed an hour later by half of a second shot (it would have been more but I spilled half of the second shot). Dinner was filling chicken and root veggies, and during dinner, I drank about 10 oz. of wine. Then I ate “dessert” right after dinner (it was, comparatively, a friendly dessert of watermelon, cheese, and 2 very small raw and organic chocolate truffles, but still, it was too much).

Of course, it’s almost a joke to call this “overdoing,” when I compare this kind of “binge” to the real binging I know I can do. I have years of experience with eating and drinking over 3700 calories per day. Many times have I downed massive hunks of meat with bread, chips, pasta, potatoes, and gooey cheese, stuffed myself with countless quantities of Oreos and ice cream, and swilled great vessels of booze. So compared to these times I have to admit that I remain comparatively “in control.”

But it’s like the apostle Paul says: “I know and am persuaded … that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. […] …whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:14 & 23). For me, I realize that yesterday my awareness was blunted. I lost the sense of being “intentional,” or using my “will” or “control” in eating and drinking. In this sense, my behavior did not proceed from “faith,” and hence, today I feel regret.

Every gain I have made in the past six months has come through being intentional. In my life, I moved away from a long period where either my behaviors lay almost entirely outside of “intention,” or they were the result of a war of conscious and unconscious intentions, and into a life where I suddenly felt in control. I had been experiencing my life as a series of blurry days where I didn’t consciously choose my behaviors. But I found will-power.

After yesterday, at first I worried that I’d lost it. I remember a time when I could not achieve my best intentions, or they were actively and rudely interrupted by my worst.

In his recent book on the apostle Paul, atheist philosopher Alain Badiou points out that the apostle Paul may have intuited this existential dilemma 2000 years ago (see Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism). Paul also regarded the subject as being a divided structure: our being is divided between an impulse towards death, which comes from something he called “flesh” (although this is for him not the physical body so much as it is our socio-historical being outside of Christ) and an impulse towards life from what he called “spirit” (which is for Paul the transcendent, God-given part of our being). As he puts it: “the intention [Gk: phronema] of the flesh is death, [but] the intention of the spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6, my translation; I owe my citation of this verse today to Badiou).

In secular terms, this idea suggests that a part of us inevitably fights against every ideal that we embrace. We tend to resist every force seeking to constrains us, and also every law that we ourselves make. This is what the psychoanalysts refer to as the divided subject. Freudian psychoanalysis sees the human psyche as divided into separate drives. Especially, the Freudians talk of two opposing forces: an inner “death drive,” (thanatos), which does battle with eros, our drive for life and connection. This is important to remember. I should never again be surprised to find myself at war with myself. Civilization (or religion, or academics, or athleticism, or any self-discipline) requires the repression and sublimation of unwelcome, anti-social, or self-destructive drives and desires. These will inevitably resurface and cause havoc, from time to time.

There’s a tension at the heart of all our efforts of bettering our selves. But we cannot resolve this tension by eliminating the divided intentionality of our being, any more than we can stop dreaming. We cannot overcome the fact that we have an unconscious mind. We also have many unconsciously transgressive behaviors. Because this is natural, it is necessary to be patient and loving with one’s self. I believe this love begins with simply acknowledging one’s behaviors. Admitting them allows them to be observed by one’s conscious mind. When we embrace what we do, confessing it to our selves, and even own it as our own real behavior, we begin to restore unity to our intentional being. And from there, perhaps we can let spirit reassert control over flesh.

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