Thursday, July 31, 2008


I'm in the midst of Sacvan Bercovitch's American Studies classic, "The Puritan Origins of the American Self," and I was struck by one of Bercovitch's ideas. He suggests that the Puritans sense of self was a "self civil war," which he renames "Auto-Machia," because "it evokes both modern autonomy and medieval psychomania" (19). He then reprints a poem wrtten by George Goodwin in the early 17th century:

I sing my SELF; my Civil Warrs within;
The Victories I howrely lose and win;
The dayly Duel, the continuall Stride,
The Warr that ends not, till I end my life.
And yet, not Mine alone, not onely Mine,
But every-One's that under th' honor'd Signe
Of Christ his Standard, shal his Name enroule,
With holy Vowes of Body and of Soul.

What strikes me is the presence of what one might recognize as characteristics of modern angst (daily duel, endless strife) within a Puritan explanatory context: the coming of a final Judgement, the "signe of Christ." It makes one wonder... which comes first? The explanatory context or the state of mind that is described? Of course it's a chicken and egg question, but interesting in the context of the development of the idea of the autonomous self, which Bercovitch credits (partially) to the Humanists.