Quotes & Commentary #38: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #38: Emerson

The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself, and all things.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

While there have been many great writers who never wrote of themselves—Shakespeare comes to mind, of whom we know very little—it is certainly true that Emerson wrote reams about his cosmic self. His greatest book is his diary, an exploration of self that rivals Montaigne’s essays in depth and eloquence.

Writing about oneself, even modestly—and Emerson was not modest—inevitably involves self-mythologization. Emerson was the Homer of himself. He looked ever inward, and in his soul he found deities more alluring than Athena and battles more violent than the Trojan War. From this tumultuous inner life he created for himself a persona, a literary character, who both incorporated and transcended Emerson the man.

Everyone does this, to a certain extent. Identity is slippery, and the self is a vanishing figment of thought. As Hume pointed out, we are really just a floating observer embroiled in bundles of sensations. Each moment we become a new person.

Our past only exists in our memory, which is just an internal rumor that we choose to believe. And our feeble sense of history, itself always in flux, is the only thing that ties together the confused mass of colors, sounds, and textures, the swirling indistinct thoughts, the shadowy images and daydreams, that make up our mental life.

Your identity, then, is more like the water flowing down a stream than anything solid. The self is a process.

This groundlessness, this ceaseless change, makes people uncomfortable. So much of our lives consists of building solid foundations for our insubstantial selves. Culture can be thought of as a response to this existential uncertainty; we constantly try to banish the ambiguity of identity by giving ourselves social roles, roles that tell us who were are in relation to everyone else, and who everyone else is in relation to us.

Each moment of the day carries its own ritual performance with its concomitant roles. In trains we become passengers, in cars we become commuters on our way to work, at work we become a job title, and at home we become a husband or wife.

The ritual of marriage, for example, is performed to impose an identity on you. But in order for this imposed identity to persist, the community must, in a million big ways and small, act out this new social role. Being married is a habit: a habit of acting, of thinking about yourself, and a habitual way of treating you that friends, family, acquaintances, and even the federal government pick up.

A common way of reinforcing one’s identity is to attach it to something apparently solid, objective, and permanent. Thus people learn to equate their self-esteem with success, love, money, with their marriage or their job title. But these strategies can backfire. Marriages fail and jobs end, leaving people feeling lost. And if you identify your worth with your fame, skill, or with the size of your wallet, you doom yourself to perpetual envy, since there will always be those above you.

People also position themselves demographically; they identify themselves with their age, nationality, ethnicity, race, or gender. These strategies have the merit of at least pointing to something substantial. I know, for example, that my behavior is influenced by the fact that I am an American; and by being cognizant this identity, I understand certain behaviors of mine.

Nevertheless this too can be taken too far, specifically when people reduce themselves to members of a group, and attribute all their behaviors to the groups to which they belong. Your demographic identity influences your behavior, by shaping the pattern of your actions and thoughts, but it does not comprise your identity, since identity can never be pinned down.

Those with strong wills and forceful personalities, like Emerson, wrestle with this problem somewhat differently: they create a personal mythology. This is a process by which they select moments from their past, and omit others, and by this selection create for themselves a story with a definite arc.

At the end of this arc is their persona, which is a kind of personal role, a character they invented themselves rather than adopted from society, formed by exaggerating certain qualities and downplaying others. This persona, unlike their actual, shifting identity, is stable and fixed; and by mentally identifying with this persona of theirs, they manage to push aside, for a time, the groundlessness of self.

I can’t help admiring these self-mythologizers, these artists of the literary self, the Emersons, Montaignes, and Nietzsches, who put themselves together through force of will. This procedure does carry with it some dangers, however, the most notable being the risk that you may outgrow or tire of your persona.

I can only speak from my own experience. Many times in my life I have acted out a sort of character in social situations, either from shyness of showing my real self, or an attempt to impress others; and although this strategy worked for a time, it ended by being highly unsatisfying.

In effect I trained those around me to respond to me in certain ways, to consider me in a certain light, and when I got tired of this character I was left with friends who didn’t know me. They knew a part of me, to be sure, since any character I can invent for myself will always have some of my qualities, but they didn’t know the full range of my traits.

Emerson was well aware of this danger, which is why he made it a point to be changeful and inconsistent. As he repeatedly said, he had no system. He considered himself an experimenter who played continually with new ideas. This itself was a sort of persona—the mercurial prophet, the spontaneous me—but it gave him the flexibility to expand and shift.

To me, there is nothing wrong with mythologizing yourself. The important thing is to recognize that your persona is not your self, and not to let a fixed conception of your own character constrain your actions. A personality is nothing but a pattern of behavior, and this pattern only exists in retrospect. You as you exist now are a bubble of awareness floating down a stream of sensation, a bubble that forms and reforms every passing moment.

Quotes & Commentary #29: Evans-Pritchard

Quotes & Commentary #29: Evans-Pritchard

A man is a member of a political group of any kind in virtue of his non-membership of other groups of the same kind.

—E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer

Evans-Pritchard—or “EP,” as his friends called him—was one of the great pioneers of cultural anthropology. His work among the Nuer, a Nilotic ethnic group living in modern South Suden, is now regarded as among the classics of anthropology.

I read his work when I was just a young anthropology student. After all these years, this quote has stayed vividly in my memory because, though not occupying a central position in EP’s thought, I think it says something profound about the nature of social behavior.

Consider this typical habit. If somebody from Europe asks me where I’m from, I say the United States. If an American asks me the same question, I say I’m from New York. If the person is a New Yorker, I say I’m from Westchester; and if they’re also from Westchester, I say I’m from Sleepy Hollow.

Thus, I locate my identity with increasing precision depending on the proximity of our origin. Differences between people become more important, paradoxically, the more similar you are. Freud called this phenomenon “the narcissism of small difference,” and it is memorably portrayed in EP’s book.

The Nuer, a tall, thin, pastoral, cattle-herding people, are constantly at war with the Dinka. The Dinka also speak a Nilotic language, are also characteristically tall and thin, they also herd cattle. An outsider would likely have trouble telling the two groups apart. And yet the Nuer look down upon the Dinka with disdain and disgust, regarding them are nearly subhuman, and never hesitate to inflict violent raids upon them.

This sounds ridiculous; but consider how often we do the same thing. Indeed, it is of the nature of our social identities that they are defined by the groups they are opposed to.

The phenomenon is especially visible in sports. Here in Spain, your identity is signified by the football team you support. Being a fan of any given team has political and cultural overtones. The ideological tension between Madrid and Barcelona is symbolized by the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barça (known as El Clásico). Likewise in New York the Yankees and the Mets attract different demographics.

Politics, too, is classic example. To be a Democrat means being opposed to everything the Republicans do and believe; and vice versa. To quote a recent Op-Ed article by the comedian Trevor Noah: “Either black people are criminals, or cops are racist—pick one. It’s us versus them. You’re with us, or you’re against us.” Even the minor parties are defined by their contrast to the major ones. A member of the Green Party is somebody too leftist and idealistic to be a Democrat; and a libertarian is somebody who disagrees with the Republicans on social issues and with the Democrats on economic ones. And so on.

Less apparent, though no less real, is the operation of this phenomenon in the sphere of culture. This was demonstrated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu’s classic sociological study, Distinction. There he documents how people use their taste in music and literature in order to define their position in the social scale.

Snobbishness is an attempt to distance oneself from other groups by snubbing your nose at their art and culture; and in so doing, you signal your allegiance to your own group and construct your own social identity. Just consider how much time people have spent publically complaining about Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. Why do people so enjoy—in the privacy of friendly conversation and the openness of social media—berating movies, shows, songs, and books? And why do we often consider a person’s taste to be such a critical factor of who they are?

In the words of Oscar Wilde (who was right about everything): “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

I myself, I am ashamed to admit, have viciously judged others by what books they read and didn’t read—even by what books they have or hadn’t heard of. Likewise, in various circumstances I have been judged for my lack of knowledge of Buddhism, rap, postmodern philosophy, contemporary physics, and the history of the United States.

The knowledge deemed “crucial” varies from group to group. And in each case, some other reason is given for their snobbishness. Buddhism can save your life! Physics is the nature of reality! You need to know all the names of the Supreme Court justices in order to be a conscientious citizen! And so on. But the truth is that all this knowledge, while useful and interesting, also serves as a social marker, identifying your place in the complex, ever-shifting, overlapping hierarchies that we use to negotiate the public world.

Take a moment to reflect on this. How much of your own identity is constructed from this process of embracing and scorning, of judging and condemning, of critiquing and collecting, of identifying and opposing? How much of our self-image is composed of the types of movies we watch, the genres of music we listen to, the sophistication of the books we read? How much of your sense of self is a reflection, a negative definition formed by you self-consciously not belonging to a certain political party?

Personally, when I ask myself these questions, I find the answer very disturbing. Yes, to a certain extent it is inevitable if we are to live in a society. But identifying yourself by variously allying yourself with, or distancing yourself from, various pre-existing identities seems like the very definition of superficiality. After all, if we are not to be mere party members or fans or cheerleaders, we cannot put together our identity out of puzzle pieces we find laying around. A true individual is not made of legos.

At the very least, we can keep this insight of Evans-Pritchard in mind the next time we feel inclined to judge somebody for their political party, for the team they support, for the books they read, or any of the other innumerable things we use to reduce the irreducible complexity of a human being down to simple social categories. Next time you have the urge to be a snob about your musical taste, to hate somebody because of their opinion, or to crown yourself with a halo for not being a Democrat or a Republican, consider how this very act of judging is a way of defining yourself. And do you really want your self-image to be the byproduct of snobbery?