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The Call of Character

The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living

Mari Ruti
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Call of Character
    Book Description:

    Should we feel inadequate when we fail to be healthy, balanced, and well-adjusted? Is it realistic or even desirable to strive for such an existential equilibrium? Condemning our current cultural obsession with cheerfulness and "positive thinking," Mari Ruti calls for a resurrection of character that honors our more eccentric frequencies and argues that sometimes a tormented and anxiety-ridden life can also be rewarding.

    Ruti critiques the search for personal meaning and pragmatic attempts to normalize human beings' unruly and idiosyncratic natures. Exposing the tragic banality of a happy life commonly lived, she instead emphasizes the advantages of a lopsided life rich in passion and fortitude. She also shows what matters is not our ability to evade existential uncertainty but our courage to meet adversity in such a way that we do not become irrevocably broken.

    We are in danger of losing the capacity to cope with complexity, ambiguity, melancholia, disorientation, and disappointment, Ruti warns, leaving us feeling less "real" and less connected and unable to process a full range of emotions. Heeding the call of our character means acknowledging the marginalized, chaotic aspects of our being, and it is precisely these creative qualities that make us inimitable and irreplaceable.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53619-6
    Subjects: Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    • 1 The Call of Character
      (pp. 3-20)

      The question of how to live a life worth living has an illustrious history in our society, for leading philosophers, psychologists, theologists, and artists have grappled with it at least since Socrates. But what sets our era apart from earlier ones is that our relationship to this question is deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, we are no longer sure if it’s worth asking. We know (or strongly suspect) that God is dead,¹ that Truth with the capital T is difficult to attain, that the universe is a chaotic place, that the world is a violent mess, and that there...

    • 2 The Process of Becoming
      (pp. 21-39)

      How do we, as Nietzsche puts it, become who we are? When it comes to answering this question, two approaches vie for domination. The first is that “we are who we are”—that we were born a certain way and this is what we are stuck with; we may gradually be able to refine the inner core that makes us who we are, but the outline of our lives is determined from the get-go, well before we formulate our first sentence.¹ The second approach—the one I have already started to explore because I believe it is the more accurate...

    • 3 The Specificity of Desire
      (pp. 40-60)

      Let us take a closer look at the idea that we are never fully self-actualized and in particular the idea that our sense of deprivation—our sense of being perpetually “unfinished”—is not an impediment to an inspired life, but rather its precondition. This is a bold claim, for it aligns inspiration with lack, with what philosophers such as Sartre have characterized as the “nothingness” that punctures our “being.”¹ In the final chapters of this book, I explain why this alignment is not always accurate, why some of our most inspired moments are ones when we feel utterly complete. I...


    • 4 The Blueprints of Behavior
      (pp. 63-79)

      One of Freud’s most influential findings was the so-called repetition compulsion: the idea that we tend to repeat blueprints of behavior that are not good for us.¹ This is the case when we, despite our earnest efforts to the contrary, fall into the same relationship problems, the same professional dilemmas, the same maddening “issues” with our partners, parents, siblings, friends, or coworkers, as we always have. We may find ourselves regularly attracted to lovers who disillusion us. We may find ourselves endlessly replicating the same professional failures. Or we may find ourselves fighting with our father in exactly the same...

    • 5 The Alchemy of Relationality
      (pp. 80-98)

      I have emphasized that human beings are by definition precariously open to the world—that who we become depends in large part on how we interact with our surroundings. And, arguably, there is nothing about the external world that has a bigger impact on us than other people. To assert that there is no self without others, as I have implicitly done, is to acknowledge that our lives are made up of a complex tissue of alterity. Because we are born into a preexisting network of sociality, and particularly because of the infantile vulnerability I have highlighted, there is no...

    • 6 The Ethics of Responsibility
      (pp. 99-120)

      In the previous two chapters, I examined the manner in which our personal “fate,” including the quality of our intimate relationships, is to some extent dictated by unconscious motivations that always remain somewhat inscrutable. This issue raises some difficult questions about interpersonal ethics, for it is not immediately obvious how we can take responsibility for what, to use Kelly Oliver’s concise wording, “we cannot and do not control.”¹ What do we do, for instance, when the truth of our desire clashes with the desires of others? And how do we respond to situations where the demons of our past drive...


    • 7 The Swerve of Passion
      (pp. 123-140)

      This far I have focused on processes of self-fashioning that allow us to cultivate our character as well as on genres of self-experience that allow us to take responsibility for that character. But there is another way to understand what it means to hear the call of our character, and it takes us in the seemingly opposite direction of self-surrender. I sayseeminglybecause the final section of this book is devoted to illustrating that self-surrender can be an essential component of self-fashioning—that there are times when the most effective way to access our character is to suspend the...

    • 8 The Upside of Anxiety
      (pp. 141-158)

      In his incisive critique of Western bourgeois society, Theodor Adorno notes the hegemonic nature of the cultural injunction to be happy, arguing that if we are constantly assailed by the idea that we should lead cheerful, pleasure-filled lives, it is because our participation in this creed makes us easier to manipulate. It distracts us from the collective ills of our society—such as poverty and inequality—by inducing us to direct our attention to the coordinates of our own comfort. It makes us politically acquiescent by causing us to locate the source of our happiness within our own being, so...

    • 9 The Erotics of Being
      (pp. 159-176)

      Being able to integrate anxiety into our art of living is an important part of crafting a character. But, ultimately, we need more; we need to be able not just to cope with volatility, but also to experience joy. This is why I appreciate Christopher Bollas’s description of the day as a space for the articulation of our “idiom.”¹ According to this vision, each day offers us a choice: either we can approach it in a way that expresses something of our character, or we can fail to do so by flooding it with character-suppressing objects and activities. As I...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 177-184)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 185-198)