Monday, September 10, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Wishes

On ne peut desirer ce qu'on ne connait pas. —Voltaire

A Foreword is Forewarned

Who among us has not yearned to be more beautiful, win Olympic gold, or have lunch with that little redheaded girl? If only we could be granted just one wish…is that too much to wish for? In a report entitled the "Fountain Money Mountain" in 2006, a financial services marketing agency estimated that wishing wells and fountains beguile about $5 million a year from hopeful well wishers. The Trevi Fountain in Rome alone nets $5,000 a day.

Psychologists have plenty to say about such activities and their rationales. Wishes, dreams, and fantasies are discussed in more works than you or I could ever fit in a basement-sized id or an attic of super-egos. I'll offer only a couple of thoughts on the subject and leave it to the experts. The first comes from pre-Freudian psychologist, physician, and philosopher, William, brother of Henry, James:
Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon-vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, a statesman, a warrior, and African explorer, as well as a "tone-poet" and a saint. But the thing is simply impossible. The millionaire's work would run counter to the saint's; the bon-vivant and the philanthropist would trip each other up; the philosopher and the lady-killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay. Such different characters may conceivably at the outset of life be alike possible to a man. But to make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed.
I wish we had a word in English defined by that paragraph. I might call it James' Incompatibility Principle. Just as the Uncertainty Principle contradicts foreordination, the Incompatibility Principle denies that all your wishes can come true. You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find…a wish to design.

The second is from Laura King of Southern Methodist University, who, in a study published in the Journal of Personality, asked students what they would wish for, if they had three wishes. She does the customary examination, relating desires with personalities. And then, noting that personality traits are notoriously hard to change, writes, "The chances of that wish coming true are practically zero." So I'll leave the resolution makers, the self-help motivators, and the psychiatrists to their impossible task of probing human desires.

I will, instead, deal with the existential and essential features of wishes themselves, hermeneutically revealed from recorded histories. I will gather evidence and make my best empirical conclusions about the…
Good ones, poor ones,
Enticingly allure ones,
Vague ones, sure ones,
The best way to procure one's
Wishes from fishes,
          Desires from fires,
                    Itches from witches,
And turn them into riches.

How to eeny, meeny…
Wish selection from a genie.
How to barter harder
Short of ending up a martyr.
I'd provide the ride,
If beggars tried my guide.

The pieces of the thesis
Are proved by exegesis.
It's all quite scientific.
Hermeneutics is terrific!

Of course, you are free to ascribe any psychological inferences you may choose to either the text or the author.

When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers. —Oscar Wilde

Wishes go back as far as human records, but there we find a mélange of myths, gods and heros seasoned with prayers and promises with heaps of rue, a pinch of savory sage, a few Grains of Paradise, but nary a cumin. In these earliest accounts wishes are often secondary to the story. Rarely are they differentiated from desperate prayers of the supplicant or capricious boons from the gods. For example, often Mercury in his travels will bestow a wish to an ill-mannered host. It's naught but a faux offering since the god already knows the stingy fellow will suffer from it.

We have a better chance of finding a pony in Pandora's box than wish fulfillment in these myths. Theseus was said to have received three wishes from his father Poseidon, but only one is ever recorded. Deceived into believing that his son, Hippolytus, raped his second wife, Phaedra, he uses a wish to cause Hippolytus' death at a distance. Moreover, in some accounts, the wish plays no part.

There are a few instances where wishes play prominent roles. Semele, pregnant with Dionysus by a lover she thinks is Zeus, asks him for a wish because a jealous (and disguised) Hera sowed doubt that it actually is Zeus. Zeus can't renege on the request when Semele asks him to reveal himself as he truly is. Semele, of course, is killed by the sight. Likewise, King Midas' wish for the golden touch is central to that story.

However, in all cases, we never get a sense that these are ordinary people facing actual events, but gods and kings revealing larger lessons in life. If there is anything to be learned about wishes from these mythical tales, it is "Don't pursue them, especially at the expense of others." Thus, even the earliest emanations of wishes come with a warning. And so, at the outset of our journey, I repeat the warning: Beware!

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