What is the self? How might we know it and how might we describe it? Is it wine in a bottle, to be drunk by the years (D H Lawrence, parodying philosophers)? Is it mind on one side and body on the other, discrete substances communicating somehow via the pineal gland (Descartes)? Is the mind like a computer, potentially fathomable by neuroscience? Is the self a delusion, fostered by Mother Nature in order that we survive and procreate? (Though this begs the question of who, therefore, is Mother Nature?) Furthermore, how might we understand the self from within the self?
The quest for self-knowledge recurs throughout literature, philosophy, science, theology and myth. In the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero leaves the city of Uruk and travels into the great wildness of life, in an attempt to understand the meaning of his life and to contend with the knowledge of death. In the Upanishads all creation originates with the emergence of the self - ‘I am!’ - and reality is the creation of mind. In the materialist tradition, this distinction is maintained and yet reversed - the tangible, unyielding world precedes and succeeds the finite self.
Questers abound, and I have sufficient space only for an insufficient survey: Inanna in the Underworld, Isis and Osiris, Odysseus, Hercules and his trials, Theseus in the Labyrinth, Jesus in the wilderness, Buddha on his quest for enlightenment, sundry Grail Knights trotting nervously through enchanted forests, Hamlet tasked with avenging his father. Later, we encounter the heroes and heroines of bildungsromans (novels about the ‘building of a self’), including: Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Martha Quest by Doris Lessing, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Valis by Philip K Dick, Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas and so on. More recently the digital age has fostered a quite ethereal online-self, which sets forth across the cyber-wilds. Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) has propounded a theory of the self: “You have one identity…Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” In response we might leaf through our dusty old tomes and cite Shakespeare once again, the seven ages of man (and woman) and how we play so many parts as we journey through life, from the mewling infant to the schoolchild to the responsible adult and beyond. Is there an indivisible core self, beneath these roles and social codes, untainted by mortal flux? Or, as Georges Bataille wrote, are we ‘discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure’ - yearning, all the time, for ‘our lost continuity’?
Seneca said ‘Errare humanum est’ - to err is human - which may mean that all our attempts to understand the self are fraught with (human) error. Charles Baudelaire argued that to be human was to be in a perpetual state of existential confusion, even horror - ‘Il me semble que je serais toujours bien là où je ne suis pas’ - or, it seems to me I would be fine anywhere but here. This alludes to the strangeness of the condition in which we find ourselves, as it were. We emerge into consciousness and at first the world is described, interpreted, to us by our parents, our teachers. We pose urgent questions and, for a while, we are supplied with reassuring answers. Yet, gradually, we begin to understand that something is awry. ‘Where does the universe end?’ we ask. ‘Why was I born?’ ’Why must I die?’ One day the reassuring adult says: ‘I don’t know.’ Or, worse besides, ‘We have no idea, whatsoever.’ This is quite the opposite of reassuring. Later, and despite all of the above, we try to assume the role of reassuring adult, though we are not even reassured ourselves. We answer the questing child in turn, for as long as we can. Sometimes, as Baudelaire wrote, we feel that there might well be another place, a realm of Platonic ideals or a sublime utopia, in which everything is coherent and perfectly meaningful. Yet we cannot find this place!
"As I type these words, people are being imprisoned, tortued and executed because their notion of the self diverges from the absolutist theories of a dominant regime."
Hannah Arendt wrote that: ‘We are all the same, that is, human.’ The situation is fundamentally absurd and yet we are equally mired and/or perplexed; as Albert Camus also argued. This leads us to a further question: how do we know what others experience? How do we know that they feel equally mired and/or perplexed? Is your experience of being mired (and/or perplexed) similar to mine? How would we know for certain? We communicate our experiences - of being mired, or being anything else - in a collective language, and yet we never entirely know how our words affect the minds of others. Any universal theory of the self, or consciousness, must contend with a related caveat: we are the same, yet each one of us is entirely unique as well. Each one of us is here just once, for a brief, extraordinary moment of contact with others and the world. This is terrifying, beautiful and utterly fundamental.
In the midst of such riotous uncertainty, there is great freedom as well. If there is no single, authoritative metaphor or theory of selfhood, then we are free to strive towards further self-knowledge, however tenuous. This is the challenge of Bataille’s dictum. The quest for self-knowledge is, in part, a game with language, as Wittgenstein perceived. We accept the rough-hewn parameters of language, because otherwise we cannot play the game at all. When our language is conditional, then the enquiry may be fluid and far-reaching: ’You might be this, you might be that.’ Things change with a superficially modest - and yet highly significant - shift in language - ‘You are this, you are that.’ Proscriptive theories of the self can be advanced and enforced by repressive societies and regimes: you must be this, or else. The annals of history are full of pronouncements concerning the so-called nature of women, of men, of races, of classes; arbitrary yet adamantine taxonomies enforced at times by law. As I type these words, people are being imprisoned, tortured and executed around the world because their notion of the human self diverges in some way from the absolutist theories of a dominant regime. For William Blake, this was the great struggle of mortal life - to define, not to be defined: ‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.’ With the creative power of language in mind, Blake devised his own pantheon of deities, his own theories of the self. As the scientist Jocelyn Bell Burnett has argued: ‘We all have different understandings of what truth is, and...we are in danger of each believing that our truth is the one and only absolute truth... I think a search for understanding is much more serviceable to humankind, and is a sufficiently ambitious goal of itself. If we assume we have arrived, we stop searching, we stop developing…’ The quest, for each one of us, ends in darkness. Yet, we are here, now, and we have the time - and we might well quest urgently for self-knowledge, while allowing others the same freedom to quest urgently in turn. This is the fascinating and paradoxical adventure of mortal life.
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