Defining the Self

September 22, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Last week, I attended a lecture at St. John's College titled, “The Intermittencies of the Self: Philosophic and Poetic Inquiries into the Nature of Selfhood (Or: Is Literature the Most Important Activity a Human Being Can Engage in, and Should You Dedicate Your Life to It?)”. The speaker, David Carl, used a number of texts to trace an argument about the way that a self may be constructed. He focused on Fernando Pessoa's experiment of writing in another persona altogether and Schopenhauer's theories of representation. Though Pessoa is perhaps one of the first to use fictitious journal entries as a way to literally become another voice, the discussion of self, self-perception, self-creation and how we create an identity is not new. Literature is constantly evolving the discussion of self.

Perhaps this is the reason for the recent explosion of memoir and creative nonfiction. These genres place the self into the landscape being discussed. For example, instead of commenting on scenery, one actually depicts an interaction with the landscape. This approach of weaving different texts in and out of the author's life is often called “braiding”. Though the author remains the focal point of the story (as in memoir), there will be pieces of heavily researched data entering and informing their lives.

A recent essay by Nicole Walker in Creative Nonfiction discusses the possibilities of this approach while simultaneously demonstrating the technique. In this essay, Walker writes about her life as a child which now informs her political and personal landscape. In so doing, she weaves in and out scientific explanations of the environment, religious affiliations, common misconceptions and generalizations, as well as a discussion of the essay format itself. I think that this technique offers an interesting avenue towards self-discovery. In braiding, one can literally write about anything as long as some connection is made between the self of the story and the thing being discussed. In other words, it forces abstract thought. I wonder if creating connections with something completely outside of ourselves will allow for more empathy? It seems like a natural progression: to travel through different to similar to myself and then back to similar and finally, different. As Walker's essay demonstrates, we are often surprised at the connections and revelations that this style offers. Braided content requires a high level of analysis and sometimes abstraction. Wouldn't it be ironic if, in this french-braiding technique which seems to erase the I, or even in the case of Pessoa (who literally attempted to erase himself and push another voice forward), we find the self? Wouldn't it be ironic if the ability to understand a completely foreign character (or thing) leads us to self-development?

In Carl's lecture, he touched on a couple of my favorite quotes. First, Wallace Stevens wrote, “Reality is not what it is. It consists of the many realities which it can be made into.” Of course, one of the reasons that I study literature is to meet worlds from which I can gain no other access. Even if that world is fantastical and experimental, there is something to be gained if the piece carries a question or idea that also plagues our society or ourselves. Our world seems fascinated with labels. Yet, identity is not always easily constructed. For example, we have the ability to move often (which troubles the question: “Where are you from?”). We also change jobs more often than a decade or two ago (so, “What do you do?” becomes tricky to succinctly answer). These two seemingly basic questions may have four or ten answers. We do a lot. We expect a lot. And while that is exciting and opportunity-filled, but it is also stifling if we feel that a single identity is in some way necessary. And this is where literature allows some travel, some leeway, some discussion. Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, “Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no landscape but what we are. We possess nothing, for we don’t even possess ourselves. We have nothing because we are nothing. What hand will I reach out, and to what universe? The universe isn’t mine: it’s me.” In other words, if we use literature to reach out, our universe may continue to expand.

Which brings me to the second quote from Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation: “[The aesthetic experience] consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares: we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.” For me, this means that contemplation allows us to open our mind to ideas. Personally, I am excited by this great, wide open space dedicated to development.

Many thanks to David Carl for his inspiring lecture as well as St. John's College for hosting the event. For more information on St. John's College Dean Lecture Series, visit:

For more on Pessoa, read last week's blog.

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