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Styling the Self

There is no whole self....
I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.

Jorge Luis Borges (1)

In the course of the dialogues in Savage Solitude, my soon-to-be-published exploration of the lone state, I disagree with Borges:

283. distinct

I have core tendencies and imperatives. Schopenhauer, Dennett and Borges might insist that there is no self, but look, I dislike green olives, love mushrooms, hate certain tones of voice. I am unhappy with certain people, calm and relaxed with others. I have memories. I might train myself to new behaviour and perceptions, but I will remain a distinct entity with old motivations. (2)

At the very least, we’re unique viewpoints. Conglomerate yes, classifiably human yes, shaped by our acculturation yes, but still entities with no exact replica. This is a scientific fact; we’re distinguishable as individuals by means of our unique DNA. It’s also what the religions tell us, while counselling that we succumb to the Great One and be self-less in Him or It.

The revulsion from an unwanted self, and the impulse to forget it, mask it, slough it off and lose it, produce both a readiness to sacrifice the self and a willingness to dissolve it by losing one’s individual distinctness in a compact collective whole.”

Eric Hoffer (3)

In behaviour, who is truly individually distinct? I keep imagining the eyes of a supra-global giant and how she might easily categorise us into types or streams in the manner of a market research expert. Even the revolutionaries are types, for a period standing out from the general, and then joining the league of innovators, those perennial personalities that respond to their time with idealistic passion. Laudability aside, this is still a type. Michel Houellebecq goes so far as to say that there’s little of interest in the human being except what we produce.

Any distinctness must be experienced within us, because attempts to impress others are notoriously unreliable. Whether or not you make a ‘mark’ is part effort, part destiny – destiny in this case equalling personality. You can’t really ‘be anything you want to be’. For some things you simply will not have the aptitude. You could define the self as a collection of abilities in a specific combination.

Why should you ‘be’ anything at all? Because, I suppose, you must eat, but also because you’re inclined to express your self, your abilities. You learn because you can, you write because you can, you disrupt because you can. This, however, is not ‘being’, but ‘doing’. You already are, however impossible that is to quantify. We can only be discerned as a function of what we do. As Sartre said, ‘I exist as engaged.’

But simply doing isn’t enough. The human is as much about how something is done as what that something is. Susan Cain, in Quiet (4), her book about introversion, refers to studies where the person who talked most often and most eloquently was perceived to be the most effective. We are easily duped, or maybe we just like a good show. We can forgive a lot if a person has ‘style’.

Ideally, commercial purposes aside, style in daily terms is an attempt to express in outward behaviour what is experienced within – the portmanteau ‘self’. But the self, being a portmanteau, is largely inexpressible. It peters out into silence, because at the chemical and genetic levels there is no socially apprehensible voice. Even dance can’t express it, because any ordered movement is learned. Music is close, in that it seems to reflect our internal order vibrationally, but its execution must be studied. No, the self remains hugging itself and rocking, as style sallies forth like a nebulous wish-fulfilment.

There was no-one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one.

Jorge Luis Borges (5)

The word ‘style’, according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, has its origin in Old French and mod. French, from Latin stilus, influenced in spelling by association with Greek stulos column, cognate with stylus. A stylus is an ‘ancient implement for writing on wax etc., having a pointed end for incising characters and a flat, broad end for erasures and smoothing the writing surface’. The word ‘style’ is interchangeable with ‘stylus’, and apart from the common currency of ‘a mode or manner of behaviour’, also means a ‘pointer’ or ‘pin’ for ‘indicating a time, position, etc.’ and is applied to pointed appendages or projections in biology.

We triangulate our personalities on the social landscape by adopting a particular style of behaviour. ‘I wear....’; ‘I eat....’; ‘I never....’; ‘I always....’ Personally, I’ve shifted my behaviour and image so much that I can’t truly say I belong in any square of the grid. Who wants to think of themselves as being easy to encapsulate? Business theorists reduce us to euros, dollars etc. and they’re right in a way; psychologists reduce us to syndromes and are right too; scientists expand us to possibilities limited by biology. The experiential issue is whether we'll reify ourselves as a repetitive set of characteristics, particularly when self-observation is so unreliable. Unless we are to be hermits, the best we can do with style is adopt one which reflects or contradicts a stylistic movement. The origin of the word seems to ‘point’ to this. What we think of as creative fluidity can become a solidification, a sculptural pose, difficult to undo.

It’s noblest to ignore the style of an individual and consider instead the flummoxed organism underneath with its needs and propensities. But where human rights aren’t in question, style is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being human. The potential for creativity is immense. Would we have any of our social and cultural structures without the operation of style in its broad terms? It’s the ‘stylus’ of artistic expression that allows us to judge and appreciate it. But while most poets would say that the instrument must not have a blunt side, too much precision with a sharp point can also detract from the effect. Poets who perform are, I suspect, interested in applying the broad brushstroke of physical dynamic to the stylus of language, but performance demands a personal presentation style that writing does not, and guides the personality towards columnar persona. At a writers’ workshop, one poet famously declared that she didn’t care about the feelings, she was only interested in their effective expression. She was voicing the common artistic wisdom. Feelings come and go, and individuals are not extraordinary in themselves; it’s the style they adopt that illuminates their qualities. Style is a kind of spotlight that makes one appear larger than life. Then it becomes the life. Yeats had a point when he said that sufficient pretence becomes reality.

Some people have no concept of style. They believe they have a specifiable, valuable identity and are powerfully aware of their position in space. They’ll ‘be themselves’. If you’re the social and stylistic butterfly, constantly putting on different faces, isn’t that ‘being yourself’ too? In fact, it might be truer to the self, because we have so many different aspects and new characteristics constantly rise to the surface with changes in circumstance. Changing style allows us to explore the hitherto unconscious within us.

In the last analysis, there’s no analysis, unless there is indeed some supra-human giant pedagogue wielding a stylus and saying, ‘There, look. That’s the finest specimen. That’s the most beautiful, the truest to perself. Let us remake the human race in per image.’ Er... in per style.


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 (6)


(1) Jorge Luis Borges: ‘The Nothingness of Personality’, The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986, ed. Eliot Weinberger, translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine and Eliot Weinberger, London: Penguin, 2001.p. 3.
(2) Máighréad Medbh: Savage Solitude: Reflections of a Reluctant Loner, to be published February 2013 by Dedalus Press.
(3) Eric Hoffer: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, New York: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 59.
(4) Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, London: Viking, 2012.
(5) Jorge Luis Borges: ‘Everything and Nothing’, Labyrinths, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, London: Penguin, 2000, p. 284.
(6) Máighréad Medbh: ‘I’, first published in ¡Divas!, Galway: Arlen House, 2003.


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