The itch deep in the core of one’s being to be a ‘somebody’ is something that needs to be scratched out. But how to scratch it out without scratching it, the itch, and thus making it worse, itchier—this is a problem for delicate fingers.
This sin of petty hubris—its prosaic character is audible in the humble choice of the word ‘somebody’ over the more poetic hubris of a Greek hero who desires to be a god; this petty hubris is an American fleur du mal and horticultural export known as ‘Success’—is somewhat like a mistake that stands in need of correction, a trespassing onto a property that is not one’s own. The true owner of the property has suffered a violation of his rights, and now these rights need to be officially confirmed and reinstated by a judgement and a punishment. The violence of hubris, in any case, cannot be conceived as some kind of damage inflicted by oneself on oneself. It is essentially an offense to someone else, and as such it constitutes a guilt. One needs to be ashamed, publicly, of one’s hubris.
This very shame, of course, pays a surreptitious tribute to the secret power of petty hubris and augments its power. The furnace in the engine of petty hubris is the all but inextinguishable promise, told to the self by those things on most intimate terms with the self, that something can be achieved. The promise that is the encouragement of the self to dwell on an extraordinary possibility, the possibility of extraordinariness.
That there is such a thing, such a possibility, as ‘being a somebody’1—this conviction is the secret eternal flame of petty hubris. The angry forces that come along to curtail and subdue this conviction thus serve to fan its flames. Hubris is fired up by mythology. The angrier Zeus gets, the more the human ego feels an inborn need to rise up against him in revolt and to scream blasphemies.
And what of the Hassidic teaching of bitul? Is that ‘self-cancellation’ not basically the same mythological doctrine of hubris-crushing, the Hebraic counterpart of the catharsis procedure found in Attic tragedy? Is not the ‘Bible’ the original art of making oneself sick through herd morality (Nietzsche) and civilization (Freud)?
In exile, the Torah is almost everywhere submitted to a kind of mythological reading that would transform the Holy One, blessed be He, into a Zeus (Heaven forbid!)—and hence Adam into a Prometheus. This idolatrous syncretism thereby reduces the teaching of bitul into a doctrine of self-humiliation, self-mortification, catharsis, etc..
Bitul, genuine bitul, however, has little to do with this glorious mythological theme. Bitul does not correct a mistaken trespass onto anyone’s property. No property rights are violated. How could they be? The Infinite One is kone hakol, the ‘owner of everything,’ and therefore it is quite impossible to steal anything from Him, fire, fruit or anything else. It is impossible to actually offend Him or threaten Him, in the manner that the not-quite-infinite gods can be offended and threatened. In truth, there is no hubris. The ‘cancellation’ involved in bitul is consequently not an invasive surgery. It sounds like nothing more than a simple, ‘Excuse me, can I get by?’ addressed to oneself.
What bitul cancels is designated in Hassidic teaching as ‘existence’ (yeshus). There is no ‘ego’ to serve as the bull’s eye of bitul. The entirety of Creation, the fact of Creation as such, if anything, is at fault. Whence no one is at fault. The myth of the arrogant ‘ego’ is part and parcel of the hubris myth and an assimilation to Hellenistic ways of thinking. Creation, existence, hence my existence, simply has no secret power of self-affirmation. My existence has no promise to give itself regarding any extraordinary possibility to be achieved. I am truly and simple a nobody. I did not make myself. I barely know myself. The circle of my life is a set of electrons spinning around a molecular nucleus. I have my family, my acquaintances. Nothing more. I am often abysmally alone. Some people like me, some don’t. Fame is a mirage. I will probably never be a hero. And even if I manage to be a hero, so what? My life will probably never be on the screen. And even if it will be on a screen, next week will have a new feature. In any case, I will eventually get sick and lie dumbly in the earth.
And regarding this, the teaching of bitul says, very simply, that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. If anything, grasped correctly, there is reason to rejoice.