Friday, January 29, 2016

The nature of the “I”

The “I” is easily defined. It is what I mean when I say “I”. There is no confusion about it, no argument as to whether this “I” is real. RenĂ© Descartes nailed it: cogito, ergo sum. Such simplicity has been wrecked by the introduction of “ego”, a weasel word so tricky as to defy all argument as to whether it points to anything real. Examples:
How can I rid myself of my ego? As hard as I try, it keeps coming back. I have meditated, fasted, taken vows of silence—but after years of work, my ego is still there.
“My ego”? Who is the owner of this ego? How can I prove it is not the ego talking? No wonder I cannot get rid of “it”. We are one. (1)

Or there is the profane use of ego in the sense of egotism, as in:
Thoughts of [Duncan] Bannatyne, full of ego & Viagra, pounding away . . . [part of a tweet from English journalist Katie Hopkins]
To some, egotism itself is the enemy. It must be defeated through cunning, or disguised through treachery, as in this piece of advice to writers:
Don’t begin paragraphs with “I.” For that matter, try not to begin sentences with the personal pronoun. Avoid “me” and “my” when you can. Writing memoir, don’t say, “I remember that in my childhood nothing happened to me.” Say, “In childhood nothing happened.” (2)
I found this peculiar: the author pretending to be a camera, an impersonal object. Why? “I” suits me perfectly. It reminds me that I can only say how something is for me: not how it is for anyone else, or in itself, if that means anything.

I have in fact been thinking of writing a memoir. Something always happened, especially in childhood—a great jumble of things. Some I remember without any effort. Others I can recall if I try, or if something prompts the memory. Am I to decide which details matter more than the others? How can I tell my life-story so that it makes sense to anyone else? I would have to explain why I did things and why things happened to me. And since I don’t really know, I would have to make something up. It would be the rambling narrative of someone without the skill or imagination to write a novel. In any case there’s a frightful glut of memoirs and novels. So I shall sweep away the detail, and see what’s left—not much! “Things happened, I did what I could. I ended up here, which is exactly where I want to be.” I think that’s the truth and nothing but the truth. For my purpose, it’s the whole truth.

It’s clearly not enough for my imagined reader, who wants to know how and why. I could cook up answers, but they would be worthless, at least to me, for I would know they were cooked up. If explanations are required, this one from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” must answer my case:
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
I was that fool; I persisted; now I’m here.
Folly: The quality or state of being foolish or deficient in understanding; want of good sense, weakness or derangement of mind; also, unwise conduct. (3)
That was me. Further details unnecessary.
Wisdom: Capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgement in the choice of means and ends . . . opp. to folly. (3)
I wouldn’t call my present state wisdom. I would call it gladness. I don’t know if I have the capacity of judging rightly. I follow impulse as I’ve always done. The difference now is to welcome the outcome. It’s as if my life till now has been a training course: one that nobody designed, nobody supervised. If you can’t imagine such a thing, look around, see Nature. It is harder to see nature by looking in a mirror. Nature is the sum total of Evolution’s achievement. There may be extra stuff, that I for one am not immune from wanting to believe.

I was born, grew up and discovered myself to be me. I wasn’t aware of my profound not-knowing, not till much later. And yet, somehow, I chose impulse as my principle guide. I did things, suffered; did nothing, also suffered. I can’t say that things went wrong, because I can’t really know that things would have been better had I behaved otherwise. In any case, I’m not sure that I could have behaved otherwise. But if I could, I might not have ended up here, in this place that’s exactly where I want to be. I don’t think I could have found shorter cuts than the winding paths I actually took. I persisted in my folly, lacking the wisdom to do otherwise.

In short, I find myself ready to dispense with the “what? how? and why?” of my life. My interest now is in the “I” itself; how the “I” stands in relation to everything else.

I mentioned above a piece of advice to authors: “Don’t begin paragraphs with “I,” to which I responded “Why?” The blogger who quoted it seems to have an idea. She said it called to mind another quote:
When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice. (4)
This echoes a phrase which has been brought up several times in the annals of this blog: “The personal is the universal”; which echoes “Atman is Brahman” and the Sanskrit “Tat tvam asi” which means “Thou art that”.

There’s a muddle here, a muddying of the waters. When I say “I”, it is my own personal “I”, the only one I know and can know. “You”, “he”, “she”, “they” each have their own “I”, unknowable by me. This is intrinsic to the definition of “I”. “Universal voice” is a weasel word along with “ego”. So is “truest, most intimate voice”: when I’m speaking that way, I make no claims to universality. Others may recognize what I’m talking about, or not. But then, we are weasels in a world of weasel discourse, where nothing is clear-cut. It takes effort to enter a world of clarity. In reference to previous posts and their comments, such entering may be called “awakening” or “passing through a portal”.

The nature of the “I” is to be separate from all the rest of creation. This is a deprivation. It afflicts homo sapiens alone, out of all species. But there is a get-out. Ancient wisdom says that this separation is illusory. It is also necessary, to compensate us for being the most vulnerable of the hominids. Even our birth is fraught with risk, and then the newborn remains helpless, and matures with severely attenuated instincts. So we survive with an illusory separateness along with a self-aware consciousness. Characteristically, it aids our survival and fosters development of advanced intelligence. It may or may not develop further, to a point where the “I” becomes transparent, aware of its illusoriness. Then it is able to transcend the “I”, seeing that the self and the other are not different. They are not simply “cut from the same cloth”. They are not even cut. There is simply one cloth.

I don’t know how it’s possible to reach this point, other than by persisting in one’s folly.
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1) Eckhart Tolle has an explanation of ego, as used in a spiritual sense, here. He speaks of it as a carapace: “like a big beetle. This protective shell works like armor to cut you off from other people and the outside world. What I mean by shell is a sense of separation”. A beetle needs its carapace, which makes me wonder if the metaphor is helpful to his argument.
2) avoiding the use of “I”: See this blog post by Maria Popova. She was quoting from Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty. Out of curiosity I checked the first line of a memoir he wrote 21 years earlier: “I’ve never worked a day in my life.” It’s stuffed—over-stuffed in my view—with “I” thereafter.
3) folly, wisdom: Definitions from OED (Oxford English Dictionary)
4) “speaking with the universal voice”: Cheryl Strayed, in a podcast, I think.