Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Selves

If you think a blurred face constitutes an "examination of identity in modernity" then have a look at this Lewis Thomas essay entitled "The Selves":

The Selves

THERE ARE psychiatric patients who are said to be incapacitated by having more than one self. One of these, an attractive, intelligent young woman in distress, turned up on a television talk show awhile back, sponsored to reveal her selves and their disputes. She possessed, she said, or was possessed by, no fewer than eight other separate women, all different, with different names, arguing and elbowing their way into control of the enterprise, causing unending confusion and embarrassment. She (they) wished to be rid of all of them (her), except of course herself (themselves).

People like this are called hysterics by the professionals or maybe schizophrenics, and there is, I am told, nothing much that can be done. Having more than one self is supposed to be deeply pathological in itself, and there is no known way to evict trespassers.

I am not sure that the number of different selves is in itself all that pathological; I hope not. Eight strikes me personally as a reasonably small and easily manageable number. It is the simultaneity of their appearance that is the real problem, and I should think psychiatry would do better by simply persuading them to queue up and wait their turn, as happens in the normal rest of us. Couldn’t they be conditioned some way, by offering rewards or holding out gently threatening sanctions? “How do you do, I’m absolutely delighted to see you here and I have exactly fifty-five minutes, after which I very much regret to say someone else will be dropping in, but could I see you again tomorrow at this same time, do have a chocolate mint and let’s just talk, just the two of us.” That sort of thing might help at least to get them lined up in some kind of order.

Actually, it would embarrass me to be told that more than a single self is a kind of disease. I’ve had, in my time, more than I could possibly count or keep track of. The great difference, which keeps me feeling normal, is that mine (ours) have turned up one after the other, on an orderly schedule. Five years ago I was another person, juvenile, doing and saying things I couldn’t possibly agree with now. Ten years ago I was a stranger. Twenty-forty years ago… I’ve forgotten. The only thing close to what you might call illness, in my experience, was in the gaps in the queue when one had finished and left the place before the next one was ready to start, and there was nobody around at all. Luckily, that has happened only three or four times that I can recall, once when I’d become a very old child and my adolescent hadn’t appeared, and a couple of times later on when there seemed to be some confusion about who was next up. The rest of the time they have waited turns and emerged on cue ready to take over, sometimes breathless and needing last-minute briefing but nonetheless steady enough to go on. The suprising thing has always been how little background information they seemed to need, considering how the times changed. I cannot remember who it was five years ago. He was reading linguistics and had just discovered philology, as I recall, but he left before getting anything much done.

To be truthful there have been a few times when they were all there at once, like those girls on television, clamoring for attention, whole committees of them, a House Committee, a Budget Committee, a Grievance Committee, even a Committee on Membership, although I don’t know how any of them ever got in. No chairman, ever, certainly not me. At the most I’m a sort of administrative assistant. There’s never an agenda. At the end I bring in the refreshments.

What do we meet about? It is hard to say. The door bangs open and in they come, calling for the meeting to start, and then they all talk at once. Odd to say, it is not just a jumble of talk; they tend to space what they’re saying so that words and phrases from one will fit into short spaces left in silence by others. At good times it has the feel of an intensely complicated conversation, but at the others the sounds are more like something overheard in a crowded station. At worse times the silences get out of synchrony, interrupting each other; it is as though all the papers had suddenly blown off the table.

We never get anything settled. In recent years I’ve sensed an increase in their impatience with me, whoever they think I am, and with the fix they’re in. They don’t come right out and say so, but what they are beginning to want more than anything else is a chairmen.

The worst times of all have been when I’ve wanted to be just one. Try walking out on the ocean beach at night, looking at stars, thinking, Be one, be one. Doesn’t work, ever. Just when you feel ascension, turning, wheeling, and that whirring sound like a mantel clock getting ready to strike, the other selves begin talking. Whatever you’re thinking, they say, it’s not like that at all.

The only way to quiet them down, get them to stop, is to play music. That does it. Bach stops them every time, in their tracks, almost as though that’s what they’ve been waiting for.

~ Lewis Thomas from The Medusa and the Snail

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