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Protagonism

July 15, 2015

In my previous post I suggested what could be called Omnicentric Ontology, in which everything that exists does so as the center of everything else that exists. The most obvious application of this is to human beings. Each of us cannot deny, or well escape, our own centrality in the world as we know it, and it would be unreasonable, or at least very rude, to deny that same situation to anyone else. This basic truth leads to what I call Protagonism.

Protagonism is just the idea that every person should be understood as the protagonist of his or her life story. We are all the heroes of our lives, even the most unheroic among us, even the most unwilling. Protagonism stands against any notion that would demote us, that would claim to give a full and final account of us in any other way, as mere parts of some story other than our own. Obviously we are, each of us, parts of a limitless number of other stories, if we weren’t we could hardly have a story of our own. But what makes us real (and therefore what allows us to have a part in those other stories) is the story of ourselves, the experience of the heroic ‘I’.

You don’t really need Protagonism to tell you that you are the protagonist of your own life. You know that well enough. Other people are the point. It is a signpost that says Mind the Gap, the one between your story and another, between a collective story and every individual story, or between two collective stories. (Collectives can also be protagonists, but that does not erase the individual protagonist.) Other people are always engaged in their own first-person adventures, defining and defined by their own experiences, following their own paths, and in all of this there is an unimpeachable and sovereign reality. If you are concerned with them with you must be concerned with this. If you have dealings with them you must deal across this gap, from one protagonist to another. If you are to be friends with them it must be as equals, a communion of heroes, in the free air.

Protagonism comes in most handy when we try to love one another, respect one another, be decent to one another. But it can be useful even as we approach our hated enemies. As I recall, in The Fog of War McNamara talked about how one of the crucial mistakes that he and the other planners of the Vietnam War made was to fail to empathize with the enemy, not in the sense of feeling for them but in the sense of understanding their feelings, their point of view. The Americans did not realize that the North Vietnamese were not going to simply play the part assigned to them in the American story, but that they had their own story, and in that story they were not going to give up, no matter how high the body count got. They were the heroes of their own story.

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