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In Search of Ourselves

From yoga retreats to mindfulness, finding ourselves is in vogue. But what do we actually expect to find?
Joanna Kavenna 49
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

If we are discussing the self, it might be appropriate to write as a self, from the position of myself. It might be appropriate?! I can do nothing else! I am trapped in the self, but this is an odd precept. I am not trapped – there is no preceding ‘I’ that has been contained within an inimical ‘self’ – at least I do not believe so, though some theologians might argue that the soul is trapped within the body, tested by mortal vicissitudes. Indeed this is a central precept of any dualistic spiritual system in which the soul is opposed to the body, with an accompanying suggestion that one day the soul will be released from the material realm. Yet, it is not my central precept.

Thus, one might ask: what am I? This is an unnerving question, as the subject stares into the mirror, at herself, himself, as s/he sees the unknown eyes of the unknown staring back at her/him and wonders – who directs this gaze? And what lies behind it? The mirror image is an image, not the self. And yet it confounds, because the self contemplates the self and wonders what is within and yet it is the wondering within that is wondering – and thus we might run screaming from the mirror, begging for someone to save us from the endlessly receding self!

Lucretius wrote, ‘Thus ever from himself doth each man flee.’ This does not allude to the recent scene of the Self and the Confounding Mirror. Rather, it suggests that there is a self, from which ‘man’ flees or, perhaps if he is wise, does not flee. But from which self does man (or even woman) flee? Not from the bodily self – one cannot flee the bodily self from within the bodily self. This is clearly physically untenable, unless you have managed to bifurcate reality and forged two bodily selves, one of which might chase the other while the other flees. Only then could you flee the bodily self although even as you fled from one version of your bodily self you would still, nonetheless, be fleeing within another bodily self, so you would be trapped within one variant of the self.

Of course, Lucretius does not expect his aphorism to be taken literally. It indicates, rather, a sense of unease, the sense of putting on a mask, and disguising a ‘real’ or at least ‘more real’ self. Society encourages us in these deceptions; we are taught social modes, etiquettes and conventions; we are supplied with a vast array of disguises and props and forms of conduct. The professional. The parent. The responsible adult. Underneath these guises, these varieties of illusion which may nonetheless become self-delusion, Lucretius (et al) seek the ‘real self.’ Thus, Shakespeare wrote, ‘to thine own self be true.’ Or, thus, we hear the contemporary mantras of selfhood, which refer back to a venerable philosophical tradition of self-knowing and therefore authentic being: ‘Be yourself,’ ‘Know yourself.’ And so on.

Yet, what does this mean? What does it mean to ‘be yourself’? Which self should you be? The self of your babyhood – dependent, pre-verbal? The self of your adolescent days, when you perhaps suffered agonies of embarrassment and isolation? Or, if you are a woman, your pregnant self, who perceived that her body was actually inhabited by another self entirely, her baby? These are not masks, not guises that we might lift – at each moment we are absolutely the child, the adolescent, or the mother, and then we are absolutely something else. One is not, it seems, a single cogent being that is merely disguised by fleeting appurtenances. There are masks we don, roles we play. And yet, the self also changes, inordinately, unfathomably, as it proceeds through life; it is mutable, in flux, as is everything else. It is various, and multiple and even at times wildly discontinuous.

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"To accept the unknowable nature of the self – yourself or myself – and to reside within this strangeness: that takes courage."
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In response to the bewildering, shifting array of selves, Wordsworth fixed authentic being in childhood, and proposed therefore that the ‘child is father of the man’. Thus, in neo-Platonic terms, the child is closest to an original eternal self, which has ‘fallen’ into the transient mortal realm and must suffer the vicissitudes of change and forgetting. Yet, if we are not Wordsworthian neo-Platonists, if we do not believe in a shadowy preceding realm, then what of the origins of the various and variable self? We might, within a scientific-secular frame of reference, refer to an originating cluster of cells, to genes and hereditary traces – our parents, and their parents, and so on. Yet, this heritage is mysterious too. My ancestors are lost – beyond five or six generations. Even those with more illustrious forebears will discover a point at which the line disappears into darkness. The origins of the human race are shrouded in uncertainty. The origins of language are equally intangible – these languages in which we phrase our discussions of the self, in which we speak, even, to ourselves.

We are not trapped in selfhood; we are! It is! As Sartre wrote: ‘You are – your life, and nothing else.’ Not knowing what might lie beyond, if anything at all, this is our experience. Mutable, uncertain, beautiful, insane. Defined by mysteries. As D H Lawrence wrote:

‘This is what I believe: That I am I. That my soul is a dark forest. That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest. That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back. That I must have the courage to let them come and go. That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognise and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women. There is my creed.’

What more can the self say, of itself, what more, in these paradoxical tautologies of self-reference, can it express? I am I! Human life is uncanny. And yet, it is. We are riddled with traces, or genes, or inherited traits, or intuitions. We are inducted into a language that precedes and outlasts us. We do not know where we are heading, or where the universe is heading. We do not know! The vast majority of questions, we cannot answer. Our selves are mysterious, and therefore it is strange to imagine that, from these unknowable and mutable selves, we might fashion absolute theories of the self.

We are not on stable ground, and, as any sailor will explain, it is hard to take a reading when you are out at sea and cannot perceive the horizon, and the sky is swathed in clouds so you cannot find the stars. Yet, as Lawrence writes, ‘…Gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.’ And, ‘I must have the courage to let them come and go.’ To accept the unknowable nature of the self – yourself or myself – and to reside within this strangeness, to accept the beauty and madness of the world beyond, around, within this self, to accept the impossibility of distinguishing between what is beyond and what is within the self, that everything is external and internal all at the same time: this is what Lawrence means by courage. There is nothing beyond your daily dreams of selfhood, your visions of the world. This reality is only apparent to you while you are here! Beyond that – you do not know, but it cannot be the same, remotely. This life is yours – yours alone. 

 

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