Saturday, March 5, 2011

In which C Meditates on Selfhood and Receives a Visit

March; the end of seventh week; Kristin and Pat have gone home; the crocuses are out; Lent approaches.

In my last literary theory tutorial we discussed character and subjectivity. As with all lit theory, conversation begins with what seems like common sense and quickly deteriorates. Common sense and ‘what is obvious’ only becomes more of a target; the less evaluated an idea is, the more suspect it becomes. At any rate, the question of subjectivity – of what makes a person a person, or I an I, and if such a thing exists at all – is one I’ve been interested in for a while. It’s easy to think of yourself as a bag of characteristics, things you like, your behavioral traits and emotional tendencies. Patricia Waugh in her Metafiction writes that this is a construction created by the base (in the Marxist sense), and projected through the superstructure. It is convenient for capitalism to have subjects that can be reduced to unified tendencies, because once that subject can construct a set of desires, advertising can target that set. Virginia Woolf wrote about people who weren’t cohesive, characters (including herself) who were jumbled collections of fragments, distortions, contradictions. Twentieth century theory took this farther by exploring the ideal self (as in Lacan’s mirror-phase, desire, and lack) and the construction of self through roles (always non-essential, multiple, and existing in particular contexts).

K and I always talked through selfhood, our own and others. After knowing each other for six years, it’s a conversation that has built up quite a wealth of past material. What is continuous and what is lost from the self; what comes back, surprisingly, at times. I thought about this when coming across Hardy’s Tess:

‘As she walked along today, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.’ (Tess of the D’ubervilles)

Despite the purple prose, I think this makes the point. Whatever makes a person a person, which differentiates people, it is remarkable to see how continuous people can be. Not just the other person (the not-I) but also the I that is suddenly resurrected when the other person comes into view. I ran from the lit theory tute at Corpus and stood at the market outside of Gloucester Green in the rare sunlight, and was surprised by feet and Kristin’s shout, I felt entirely, unremarkably, called back to myself.

1 comment:

Ian Wolcott said...

Montaigne wrote that we differ as much from ourselves (one moment to another) as we do from others, and when I survey the lava pit of contradictions that passes for my own mind, I agree. As a father, however, I observe telling continuities in my son and daughter, something like those that Hardy describes in Tess. Children change so much, so fast – as every parent says – but signature characteristics reveal themselves. You overlook them at first – a particular dimple, a habit of expression, a short fuse – but as the child grows older you look back and understand that they were present all along, waiting on some process of development to bring them into bloom.