(Today is my 60th birthday.)
Who am I? This is surely one of the most fascinating questions we can ask. Am I an immaterial soul trapped inside a body, or am I just matter, or am I a “no self” as the Buddhists say? Am I a separate ego distinct from every other thing, or a window, vortex, or aperture through which the universe temporarily becomes conscious, or something else?
Or if I do have a self, is it just a social face I present to the world, what Jung called “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.”1 After all, the English word person derives from the Latin word “persona,” which referred to the mask actors wore in stage plays. Do I then have many masks, many personas? I just don’t know.
Notice how language is deceiving? I ask “do I?” “Am I” “I have” “I think” assuming there is an I. If I say “I have a body,” that assumes dualism of self and body. If I say “I am a body,” that’s better, but it still sounds like the I exists. Perhaps, when pointing to myself, out of this mouth should come the phrase “bodying.” This points to an event rather than a substance—an event rather than a substance ontology. It is all so confusing. Perhaps some snippets of poetry might help.
Here’s the Italian poet Eugenio Montale:
I am no more
than a spark from a beacon. Well do I know it: to burn,
this, nothing else, is my meaning.
The Chilean Pablo Neruda began his poem, “We Are Many,” as follows:
Of the many men who I am, who we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
The American poet Ezra Pound said it like this: “In the search for oneself, in the search for ‘sincere self-expression,’ one gropes, one finds some seeming verity. One says ‘I am this, that, or the other,’ and with the words scarcely uttered one ceases to be that thing.”2
In T.S. Eliot’s The Elder Statesman, a character says:
I’ve been freed from the self that pretends to be someone
And in becoming no one, I begin to live.
All this reminds me of Keats who talked of one’s need “to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thought not a select party … to have no identity … no fixed character, no fixed opinions.”3
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in the Estate of Poetry said:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person.
I am not one person, but am I anything? You are not one person, but are you anything? If I pretend to be someone, who is doing the pretending? Could it be there is no one pretending because there is no one or no(thing) behind the mask? Both the Buddhists and Hume said as much. (And the atheist Sam Harris argued for no self in his recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.) But surely this is true. I am not a self/soul in a body, for my body is porous and needs the air which needs the trees which need water which needs earth which needs the universe … and the multiverses too if they exist. So is I just another name for everything? We’ve come full circle to the same question. Who am I and do I exist?
Confusion reigns. Poetry reveals the mystery we live within, but it gives no answers.
- C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (London 1953) p. 190
- Michael Hamburger, The Truth in Poetry: Tension in Modern Poetry… p. 267.
- Michael Hamburger, An Unofficial Rilke, p 16.