Jul 122003

Identity, that spectator
Of what he calls himself, that net
And aggregate of energies
In transient combination — some
So marginal are they mine? Or is
There mine? I sit in the last warmth
Of a New England fall, and I?
A premise of identity
Where the lost hurries to be lost,
Both in its best interests
And in the interests of life.

–J.V. Cunningham

Some artist, I’ve forgotten who, was asked how to sculpt a lion. It’s simple, he answered: you take a block of stone and chip off everything that doesn’t look like a lion. The modern technique for sculpting identities is similar.

First you chip off your job, which isn’t your self, not really. It’s a gig, what you have to do to pay the bills. Here the hedge-fund manager and the Starbucks clerk find common ground. I have known many people who worked in finance, some of them multi-millionaires, and to a man they thought of themselves like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities — in Wall Street, perhaps, but not of it. Yet if everyone is in it but not of it, then Wall Street must really not exist at all.

Next you chip off your appetites, which are not your own but are foisted on you from without by the evil purveyors of tobacco, junk food, and consumable sundries. The rash of lawsuits, tirelessly chronicled by Walter Olson at Overlawyered, against corporations for supplying goods that we want to buy can be viewed as a form of identity-shifting. It isn’t really me scarfing down Big Macs or smoking two packs a day, or it wouldn’t be if the hidden persuaders hadn’t somehow wormed their way inside my sacred soul.

Then you chip off your parents, who embarrass you, your schooling, which you despised, and your religion, which is silly. Why do people still consider the Virgin Birth a miracle when half of the residents of Manhattan were produced by one?

Reduced, at last, to a received taste in art, a few second-hand political convictions, and a nagging smugness that makes you impossible in polite company, you assert that this husk, this handful of dust, your inviolable self, is the most important thing in the world. And you don’t end up with a lion, either.

(Dept. of Faint Praise: “the most philosophical spin on fast-food lawsuits you’ll read this month.” —Walter Olson)

  9 Responses to “A Handful of Dust”

  1. Intersting how you juxtapose this post and the one before it.

    "this husk, this handful of dust,"

    "WOO HOO, I rule!"

  2. From "A Man for All Seasons"

    More: And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? Youd hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it I do not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do I! (He goes up to him and feels him up and down like a animal. MARGARETS voice is heard, well off, calling her father. MORES attention is irresistibly caught by this; but he turns back determinedly to NORFOLK.) Is there no single sinew in the midst of this that serves no appetite of Norfolks but is, just, Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord!

  3. Do people really do this to themselves? How sad.

    I’m not just a software engineer..but I AM a software engineer. I’m not just a husband and father…but I AM a husband and father. I’m not just a Christian…but I AM a Christian. I’m not just the son of my parents…but I AM the son of my parents. Et cetera, et al. I own these things; they are mine. Why ever would I want to shed them?

  4. Will: I too am a software engineer. It is a pleasant thing to be. But if you had a job, as many people do, that you considered somehow beneath you although I don’t believe there is any such thing then you would be more apt to identify with some private fantasy than your actual situation. (In my experience engineers are far likelier to identify with their jobs than other people.)

    Deb: I said I was sorry.

  5. Harsh, Aaron, harsh. I think chipping pieces off the ol’ block is an understandable impulse. I did it myself, but then I discovered that what doesn’t look like a lion also doesn’t look like a sloth. When I saw that three-toed outline begin to emerge, I hastily glued my job, my appetites, and my parents back on. Whew! That was a close one.

  6. Aaron, sure, I can see that many people don’t want to identify themselves with their jobs. Me, it’s different; I’d remain a software engineer even if I were digging ditches. But I can see people refusing to include their job as part of themselves. It’s ditching all of the other things that I find mindboggling.

  7. I would echo Deb. What an odd juxtaposition! Congratulations, nevertheless.

    As for Cunningham: which came first, the bottle or the despair? He got stuck in nihilism, it seems, without following the logic to its own rejection. If nothing matters, whence the despair?

  8. Which came first? Damned if I know. I wouldn’t call Cunningham a nihilist though. He adhered to a peculiar heretical Catholic doctrine of "haeccity" — he even has a poem by that name — which holds that all experience is corruption and that only potential is pure. And I can see how that might drive one to drink.

  9. Aaron:

    You and I (for once) see things pretty much the same way on this issue of "identity," except I would use the word "identity" to cover all those things you would strip away to find what you call "identity" and what I don’t have a word for.

    I think the best way to make your point is to ask skeptics to play a mental game: imagine you are kidnapped by the West Wind and plunked down in western Tibet, where you must begin a new life as yak herder, stripped of all the things that that previously constituted your identity: family, job, favorite baseball team, etc., even eventually, as your mamory of English fades, even your religion. Or, if that seems too far-fetched, just imagine you succumb to Alzheimer’s. Either was everything about you is changed, but you are still you, right? So who or what is that you?

    I said, I didnt have a word for it, but I do have a poem:

    I’m Nobody! Who are you?
    Are you–Nobody–too?
    Then there’s a pair of us?
    Don’t tell! they’d advertise–you know!

    How dreary–to be–Somebody!
    How public–like a Frog–
    To tell one’s name–the livelong June–
    To an admiring Bog!

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