I . . .
is always in danger of toppling.
We bolster it upholster it
strap it round with a gun belt
and pin it with ropes.
This babel tower leans according to the wind,
tries to imagine itself in another place
with a different style of window,
but it can’t leave.
Its one leg can only stand or fall.
– Máighréad Medbh(1)
That was before I had read much about consciousness and notions of the self, which by now have become a complex maze. A maze with no centre. Or right in the middle a mobile phone with a face on its screen. I often wonder how the image-generation will grow old. Is the selfie stick the dream answer to the winding path?
The inner life was a conversation with the self. Well, it seems logical to represent the inner in terms of what’s manifest. We’re presuming a lot if we think our understanding of the mind isn’t framed by language. But that the mind itself is framed by language is something I both see and don’t feel. “Why do you talk like that?” my one-night-stand asked me as we walked towards the late-night bus. I told him I was a writer and that seemed to satisfy him. But I wasn’t born a writer. I may have been born with a sensitivity to language but what would have happened if language never came. No self. Don’t wild children have selves. Does a wolf have a self.
For the classical Greek, every aspect of existence could be seen and heard. In principle (in essence) he did not know an invisible and mute reality . . . A mute internal life, a mute grief, mute thought, were completely foreign to the Greek.
– Mikhail Bakhtin(2)
In that case Allegory is Reality. Sweep of Hand, Turn of Head, Smile, are the real selves. Or movement creates the self. Stirrings and dynamics. This is how I’d like to be, taken by gestures, except that they might create the wrong selfie. It’s one of life’s tragedies that self-apperception can’t always be expressed in gesture. If there’s no self what is it that makes a great clamour of grief at not being expressed. Is Grief an allegorical mobility or a self-driven carbon-based disturbance.
A gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating a fully original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it even be regarded as that person’s instrument; on the contrary, it is gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations.
– Milan Kundera(3)
The soul is another moot concept, barely allowed. Variously to do with: water – coming from the sea –; air – involved with breath; and fire – involved with passion. Only sometimes is it connected with earth. But if soul is an unseen core energy, I think it must yearn towards earth too. Imagistically this would make it cruciform or at least magnetized.
Go on, go on, O my soul, to affront and dishonour thyself! The time that remains to honour thyself will not be long. Short is the life of every man; and thine is almost spent; spent, not honouring thyself, but seeking thy happiness in the souls of other men.
– Marcus Aurelius(4)
At the moment I’m inclined to think of my self as the unspeaking conglomeration of bacteria and cells and genetic material that composes me. 'I' relates to it as subject to predicate, director to cast, recipe to ingredients. This is the only way I can understand phrases like: Love your self; Be your self; Stand up for your self. But I don’t think I’m meant to be loving all my inner impulses, regardless of what psychologists and nouveau-enlightened religious may say. I think I’m meant to accept them and then transmute them to selfies.
In The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz wrote that in the state of mental resistance he called 'ketman,' the impression of a core could be created by internal revolt against subjection to ideological pressure. It seems to me that the same process can occur in a so-called “free society,” where your continuing acceptance and livelihood depend on a given type of self-presentation.
. . . the absoluteness of the ‘I am’ that wants to affirm itself without reference to others. This is what is generally called solitude . . .
– Maurice Blanchot(5)
I’m confused. Let’s go to poetry where confusion belongs. Emily Dickinson created this deceptively simple poem about the quandary of self:
The permanent misfits are those who because of a lack of talent or some irreparable defect in body or mind cannot do the one thing for which their whole being craves. No achievement, however spectacular, in other fields can give them a sense of fulfillment. Whatever they undertake becomes a passionate pursuit; but they never arrive, never pause. They demonstrate the fact that we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and that we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves.
– Eric Hoffer(6)
Her citadel imagery is appropriate. The sense of siege is pervasive; you find it in the least threatened people. She also imitates the me-me aporia in the structure of the poem, particularly in the first stanza, where line 2 could be a qualifier rather than a condition of line 1, making Art both an absent instrument and that which would be acquired on “Me’s” banishment. “Me” appears to be the conduit of “All Heart” but the rhyme of “Art” with “Heart,” and the use of “Unto” in line 4, rather than “Against,” seem to imply that allegiance to All Heart / Me / Art is desirable. The poem itself is the answer to the dilemma. Expression. Product.
Me from Myself – to banish –
Had I Art –
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart –
But since Myself – assault Me –
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
And since We’re mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication
Me – of Me?
– 642 (Johnson)(7)
This may articulate one motivation behind the explosion of mixed genre or non-genre writing. What do we know? We must test ourselves against prevailing knowledge and forms. And then we must perform our shifting and conflicted selves. The new academies may be little more than the re-assembling of the ancient poetic schools but without the genetic entrance condition.
The more we conceive of ourselves as autonomous, self-generated subjects, the more we become functions of our systemic environment. Lacking the critical consciousness to engage in social practice, we remain social functionaries.
– James Scully(8)
The danger is that we may misjudge rhythms when so much is coming from outside. I still argue for the integrity of inner darkness as a source of knowledge and sounds. This is an argument for the maligned 'self-expression,' as it feels into the matrix and converses with it. This is what writers have always done, in essence. Denying the existence of a self may not be the best aesthetic formula, especially if Selfies are the headline.
(1) Split, in ¡Divas!. Galway: Arlen House, 2003.
(2) The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2011, 134.
(3) Immortality. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
(4) Meditations. Translated by George Chrystal. Book II. Gutenberg.org
(5) The Space of Literature. University of Nebraska Press, 1982, 251.
(6) The Captive Mind. Translated by Jane Zielonko. London: Penguin, 2001, 80.
(7) The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Little Brown and Co., 1961.
(7) The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. N. Y.: HarperCollins 2002, 47, #37.
(8) Line Break, Seattle: Bay Press, 1988, 15.