Saturday 16 February 2002

The imaginary me

Mike Sanders asks “Who is the real you?”

We all wear masks and that is a good thing. Among other things, it helps people focus on our virtues and not on our faults. There has been much stimulating discussion on personal authenticity on David Weingberger’s blog. Or as Peter Townsend of The Who put it “Can you see the real me? Can you, can you?”

Both Mike’s question and his “masks” metaphor are based upon an underlying assumption that a “real me” actually exists. I used to believe this; and I spent a considerable amount of time, money, and psychic energy trying to discover him/me. In a 1996 Wired profile Sherry Turkle talks about role-playing—what I believe Mike means by masks—in these terms:

“We need a new language for it,” she says. “Role-playing sounds as if it’s something we’re putting on, playing at. I’m saying these are all bona fide aspects of our self. Good parenting will not teach somebody how to be a One, but teaching someone how to negotiate fluidly and have access to many aspects of the self. You have access to all of them: that’s the key, that’s what makes it healthy and not pathological. You learn to negotiate, to fit them together in some way. Using language of ‘cycling through’ rather than ‘building a One’ is going to be helpful to patients clinically, and help people think about their lives. It’s accepting where we are in the culture.”

That seemed to confirm what I’d long suspected. Perhaps there is no “real me,” just a multiplicity of me’s jostling for pre-eminence.

Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira DeclaresIn Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Declares, the protagonist—an aging, overweight, lonely journalist—visits a thalassotherapeutic clinic south of Lisbon. Over dinner, he tells the doctor assigned to take care of him that he feels “the need to repent, just as if I were someone else entirely, and not the Pereira who’s spent all his working life as a journalist…”

Dr Cardoso beckoned the waitress and ordered two fruit salads, no sugar or ice-cream please. Then: I have a question for you, said Dr Cardoso, and that is, are you acquainted with the medécins-philosophes? No I’m not, admitted Pereira, who are they? The leaders of this school of thought are Théodule Ribot and Pierre Janet, said Dr Cardoso, it was their work I studied in Paris, they are doctors and psychologists, but also philosophers, and they hold a theory I think interesting, the theory of the confederation of souls. Tell me about it, said Pereira. Well, said Dr Cardoso, it means that to believe in a “self” as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other “selves” that we have within us, is a fallacy, the naive illusion of the single unique soul we inherit from Christian tradition, whereas Dr Ribot and Dr Janet see the personality as a confederation of numerous souls, because within us we each have numerous souls, don’t you think, a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego. Dr Cardoso made a brief pause and then continued: What we think of as ourselves, our inward being, is only an effect, not a cause, and what’s more it is subject to the control of a ruling ego which has imposed its will on the confederation of our souls, so in the case of another ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overthrows the first ruling ego, takes its place and acquires the chieftainship of the cohort of souls, or rather the confederation, and remains in power until it is in turn overthrown by yet another ruling ego, either by frontal attack or by slow nibbling away. It may be, concluded Dr Cardoso, that after slowly nibbling away in you some ruling ego is gaining the chieftainship of your confederation of souls, Dr Pereira, and there’s nothing you can do about it except perhaps give it a helping hand whenever you get the chance.

Dr Cardosa’s explanation meshes better with my lived experience even at the cost of there being no “real me.”

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I thought this piece was brilliant. It explains a great deal, and I was _very_ surprised to see that there were no comments. I would have thought the theory of the medécins-philosophes as explained by Dr. Cardoso would have sparked a great deal of discussion. Almost everyone, and I say almost only because I obviously don't know "everyone" -- people I know, people I read about, hear about, know about, all search for their "real" selves.

It's become a cliche. "I'm searching for myself." You hear it all the time. Yes, it has the flavor, the texture, of something said in the 60's or 70's, but you hear it all the time, although it may be expressed differently.

The explanation offered cuts the ground out from under these anguished (if they are legitimate, sometimes they're just ways of getting more money out of mom and dad in order to spend more time slogging back beer while not declaring a major in college; "how can I declare a major if I haven't _found_ myself yet?) (ugh) pleas.

Here you go... you can't "find" yourself because you, yourself, are made up of all the faces contained within. As a house has many rooms, so then does a person have many "selves."

You don't think of a house and try to figure out which room is "really" the house -- they're all the house.

And so are we.

Posted by Wu-Xia on 16 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks for commenting, Janice -- although the "brilliance" you mention is entirely Antonio Tabucchi’s. I was a teenager in the 60's and a young man in the 70's and, accordingly, was deeply steeped in the importance of "the search for the self". I wish I had encountered the concept of the confederation of the souls at that time for it might have saved me a lot of futile heartache.

Posted by Jonathon on 16 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

It's interesting. This is also related to some of the ideas I've been reading about of late.

One notion of the self is that "the self" is not something that can be defined exclusive of its relationships to other selves. Absent those relationships, there is no "self." As the relationships change in time and space, so does the self change. So you're one person as a child, another as an adult. One person at home, a somewhat different person at work. One person in a car, a different person walking on the street.

Yet there are consistent pieces of "self" among the various relationships. There are underlying themes, perhaps themselves formed by relationships with one's family during the growing up years, and the physical relationships between the various processes responsible for consciousness.

Knowledge of this seemingly must, of necessity, alter all of those relationships in some way. How that is so isn't clear to me.

Posted by dave rogers on 17 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour