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.
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)