Monday, 13 September 2010

Found You!

Christa T. told me stories about her children; and it struck me that, unlike other mothers, she didn’t notice only the flattering episodes and enjoyable moments: she was incorruptible. A few days before, Anna and her little sister hand in hand had followed a funeral procession and had been stopped only at the last moment from going right up to the graveside.

She was wild with excitement, said Christa T.: I explained to her that only close relatives were allowed to be there when a person is buried. Then she said to me: Oh, please die soon, I want to know how you’re buried!

But then you won’t see me again.

I know, Anna said calmly.

She’s so factual, Christa T. said, without a trace of affectation….

The narrator looks back over a shared past.  She is trying to understand her dead friend; recalling memories, reading her notes and poems; and creating imaginary conversations with mutual acquaintances…. Who was she really?  Can she define her; can she capture Christa T.?

From the very beginning she was different, that was her attraction; detached from everyone else, she was outside the school conventions, the ritual obsequies to her teachers.  It was they who must submit: to her!  She was aloof from everyone; and always so knowing, it was as she’d done it all, already; as if she had travelled to Berlin and all the smart capitals, although she was a local only, living in a village a few miles away.[i] Then suddenly everything changes: walking amongst school friends Christa T. from nowhere blows a trumpet! It is the moment the narrator finds her best friend.

That moment is what the book is about. It is a search for the character who blew that trumpet. Though the search, it seems, is destined to fail: even Christa T. cannot explain herself, for in her notebook she writes of “the difficulty of saying I”.  What chance someone else?

This phrase seems to me a profound truth; and the novel’s attempts to answer it an insight into friendship and our own identity.  What do we know of our friends?  And ourselves: how much do we really understand of our own characters?

Christa T.’s remarks are those of a sensitive individual who does not have the confidence to speak from a solid persona.  She doubts her words, for she is unsure if they have the weight to carry her own self; and her identity to the outside world. Are the words we speak, the ideas we use, actual descriptions of ourselves; or are they creations, makeshift unities, that hide a far more complex, living, fragmented, reality?  There is the self that laughs oh so very confidently with friends in the street; and there is the self who lives at home, quietly behind the curtains. How much do we lose when we leave the house? An intellectually fastidious person pondering this question may find it hard to judge; and may become disorientated when looking for a “real self” that recedes ever further the more they look. For so much of what we are is non-verbal and vague; and completely unconscious. Christa T., a poet and short story writer, would have found such a task even harder.  The emotions will be a little more to the surface, and she will have a greater awareness of language, its problems capturing a life in words; of transforming something that moves and changes, feels and acts, something that lives, into an abstract material that once fixed remains eternally the same.  To fix so much!   Not just the events and incidents, but all the emotions and half-formed thoughts; and all that stuff we don’t know about – of the body’s contribution to our ideas and the presentation of our character.  It must all be described in a material that is alien to the original substance; which we put on the page, and shape and edit, often too consciously.  We turn ourselves into words and ideas; and create the illusion that we are always the same, like a portrait in a gallery; with the usual dust and decorative damage of age.  But how much of this persona is a creation, a bit of fakery? Christa T. is a recognizable character, who stands out from the crowd.  Is Christa T. ashamed of her own art? 

If you wear a “mask”, or consciously develop a persona, it is relatively easy to speak of an “I” that has been created.  It is like any role, or official position: we wear it as a uniform, which by identifying ourselves makes life easier.  So with friends.  No awkward small talk every time you meet, as you get to know each other all over again.  No!  She hasn’t changed a bit!  And off you go, the past habits carried over to the present.  Now these roles will contain something of your personality, for sure; but they will also contain something that is artificial, and which will determine how you talk and act; the train guard who is a Goth in his free time.  Although partly artificial these uniforms give us some freedom – there is a gap between what we are and how we must present ourselves; and this space cries out for free creation.[ii]  Is this the reason, perhaps, why so few work colleagues become close friends?

For those who have the talent these masks can be manipulated almost at will. Why should this be so?  Self-conscious creations they contain more of our conscious thinking; ideas now dominate; which gives greater scope for transformation and play.  For it is both the power and the danger of rational thought that concepts and theories are more abundant than the anchoring reality; and thus can live a life of their own.  Think of the scholastics debating heaven.  Ideas have the capacity, once transformed into free-floating entities, to create completely fictitious worlds.  Think of Blair and the Iraq war. Think of Kurosawa’s Rashomon – one act, but many interpretations.  The facts on the ground are limited, but our ideas about them are almost infinite.  This is the tension in all serious intellectual enquiry: how much do we go beyond the facts; and reality itself?  For how precarious is truth when ideas are set free!  And how exciting to fool and jest with strangers and friends, to hide behind your own fictions.  But masks can also be a trap; once they fix you – as a coward, a rebel, or as a traitor – you will be defined solely by them. That rich individual, full of feeling and emotion, of thoughts and eccentricities, is reduced to a few words, is killed off by just one phrase: he’s French, you know; they’re all like that: skirt chasers to a man.

If your thoughts go deeper than mere surface play, or if you want to elucidate and capture this other reality, that vague confusion of the semi-conscious, you may find a fixed identity difficult to discover; for there doesn’t seem to be stable personality of which to speak, a single authority for all our utterances. I think this is the origin of Hume’s “bundle theory” of the mind, which he believed was like a stage, with our thoughts like actors passing through it.

The mind is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement… There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, no identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. (Hume quoted in Jane L. Mcintyre, The Cambridge Companion to Hume)

Can Christa T. show this confused jumble to the world; does she want to exhibit this amorphousness to the people around her? There is a natural reluctance to do so.  For we have another view of ourselves: of a fixed and continuous identity that remains stable over time. To give the world all that moving and unstable stuff would suggest that we are not in control, that we are “losing it”, maybe going a little crazy.[iii]  Social life demands that we give the world a mask, albeit a real one, that contains perhaps only a smidgen of self-consciousness. And we have a sense of this ourselves.  This consciousness of an identity over time was something that Hume was aware of, but believed to be mistaken. One variant of this idea, which he dismissed, is John Locke’s view that our identity resides in our thinking self:

There are… “some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call SELF; that we feel it existence and its continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity.” (quoted in Mcintyre)

For Hume this was not possible, for we don’t have an impression of a simple identity that exists continuously; and because we don’t experience this continuous self it cannot exist as a real idea.  We cannot truly see ourselves as whole and permanent.   In the mirror we look like a Delacroix; but inside its all Braque.  For we experience only a series of discontinuous impressions that vary between times, and it is this fragmented experience that is the reality of our self (for Hume all our knowledge comes from perceptions, which are made up of impressions and ideas, the latter a weak copy of the former). Nevertheless, he recognised that we believe this fixed and consistent idea of a single self to be our true one. It’s just that we are mistaken, he thought. Though he had his doubts; thus in the appendix to his great Treatise he wrote:

I had entertain’d some hopes, that however deficient our theory of the intellectual world might be, it wou’d be free from those contradictions, and absurdities, which seem to attend every explication, that human reason can give of the material world. But upon a more strict review of the section concerning personal identity, I find myself involv’d in such a labyrinth, that, I must confess, I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent (quoted in Mcintyre, although as she remarks his last statements on this topic revert back to his original ideas).

Why do we believe this single self to exist, and feel a kinship with it over the years? His explanation encompasses imagination, sympathy and memory.  Imagination creates a fictitious self, which combines our ideas together to create a persona.  We create ourselves! at least in our thoughts. Although it’s not as simple as this, because we also remember past events, which give us a sense of ourselves through time. This is the role of memory in personal identity. In Hume’s words: memory “discovers personal identity, by showing us the cause and effect among our different perceptions.” Though note, it is still an active function, and the question then arises: why does our memory select this perception and not that, why does one event have significance but not another; while the majority disappear altogether, like a village into the sea. Such a process of selection suggests there is something constitutive within memory itself that chooses and discriminates… Or does memory rely on the strength of the original impression; the stronger they are the more likely to be remembered? In which case our memory, and thus our identity, will be formed partly by the object creating the impression, and partly by the subject receiving it; the latter depending on the mind’s ability to absorb and translate experiences, together with its relationship to the object (and its strength and frequency). For Hume sympathy allows for an emotional and physical connection between our different perceptions over time, and is linked to both memory and the imagination: it makes us care about ourselves, both in the future and in the past.

If Hume is right personal identities are constructed realities.  The narrator’s search endorses this idea: time and again she wonders if she is creating her friend, from the fragments she has collected (notes, memories, made up conversations, Christa T.’s own fiction); though at the same time she knows these have a real existence, and that her friend has distinctive qualities that belong to her; and for which she wants to find the meaning. It seems we cannot escape this tension.  If we construct ourselves, if we are builders of our own houses, who does the constructing; what part of us actually builds? For Hume the imagination is an instinct, and it is this instinct that combines ideas to create our theories and our identities; it puts our ideas together like a craftsman his mosaic floor. Is it this instinct then that is our true self? But note Hume’s remarks on the memory.  How it discovers cause and effect between our perceptions; and once discovered, the memory together with the imagination creates “resemblances” between them.  Cemented together they make our identity.  But what actually constitutes our memory that allows it to create these similarities; why not a memory that is as discontinuous as the sense data themselves? The fact that memory discovers a past, through recalling certain perceptions, suggests that it too is constitutive of the self, that like imagination it too is instinct. Instinct, is this our identity?  We don’t know what it is.  It just exists.  It just is.  We have found it!  For other thinkers have disagreed with Hume, and said yes, there that is a definite self (it is not simply a mistake of our conscious minds):

[there is] Kant’s distinction between the pure self of which we only know it is, and the empirical self which, with luck, we may sometimes know as an object… (S.Körner)

Hume wasn’t interested in “ultimate causes”.  He wanted to explore and understand what was knowable in our world. The rest can be left to the metaphysicians. Kant modified Hume, substantially. He brought the mind back in.  He believed we construct our reality: time, space and causality are all mental conceptions that are built into the mind (he called them synthetic a priori judgements – because they mould our experiences but are prior to them), and of which we are unaware; but on which we depend to perceive and understand the world. However, like Hume, Kant believed there were ultimate causes, what he called the thing-in-itself, the absolute world beyond appearances, that were not open to our enquiry; and that would be forever closed to human consciousness. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is built on Kant, and is greatly influenced by the “great tradition” before him, of which Hume forms a significant part. On this fundamental point, however, of our inability to know the thing-in-itself, Schopenhauer disagreed with both Kant and Hume.  He thought we could get an inkling of it; and he called it the Will; of which our daily experiences, the actions of our own wills, gives us an insight.

…the identity of his person… rests on the identical will and on its unalterable character; it is also just this that makes the expression of the glance unalterable. In the heart is the man to be found, not in the head. It is true that, in consequence of our relation to the external world, we are accustomed to regard the subject of knowing, the knowing I, as our real self which becomes tried in the evening, vanishes in sleep, and in the morning shines more brightly with renewed strength. This, however, is a mere function of the brain, and not our real self. Our true self, the kernel of our inner nature, is that which is to be found behind this, and which really knows nothing but willing and not-willing, being contented and not contented, with all the modifications of the thing called feelings, emotions, and passions… The will itself, alone and by itself, endures; for it alone is unchangeable, indestructible, does not grow old, is not physical but metaphysical, does not belong to the phenomenal appearance, but to the thing itself that appears. (The World as Will and Representation Vol II)

Bryan Magee in his monograph on Schopenhauer relates his concept of Will to our modern idea of energy; though he accepts that whilst this might be the rawest manifestation of that absolute existence, Kant’s thing-in-itself, it is still only part of the phenomenal world.  Energy is not the ultimate cause.

For Schopenhauer our characters do exist, and they remain the same over time, though they are metaphysical, and therefore outside of our understanding. We experience that self, and we have a sense of its existence, but we cannot know that self directly. Thus we will not capture it in our thoughts, or in our descriptions. Though, pace Kant, sometimes we become conscious of it as an object. Those little acts we do, the comments we make – that trumpet blast, Christa T.’s confession about “the difficulty of saying I.”[iv]

What are we saying, when we say I? What happens when Christa T. gets over her sensitivities; or when she describes Anna at the funeral? This account, quoted at the beginning, is actually part of Christa T. herself.  It is intrinsic to her character, which she is acting out when she talks about her daughter.  Although it is also a symbol of her wider qualities; for the listener to capture and interpret.  Anna’s behaviour thus takes on a wider focus: out of all her acts this particular one is picked out and given importance, to become an indicator of personality; for both herself and for Christa T.  For the mother it encapsulates her daughter; for the narrator her best friend.  One is a description, the other an experience; one is a metaphor, the other an event; though both are transformed into memory.  What is simply one action amongst many becomes a symbol, the meaning, for the listener, who uses it to make her own narrative; about her friend and her own life. But why choose this event and give it this meaning?  In another context someone would describe it as foolish, or egotistical; or it would be forgotten altogether.  For the narrator there is something special about this incident, the reason the impression stayed and became fixed in her memory; and yet is also fits with the rest of her friend’s character; to become emblematic.  It is both different and the same!  Christa T.’s description is an event between two people; from out of which an interpretation has been created; but which depends on other scenes, and other interpretations; which in turn recreates them.  A memory has been formed, and an identity confirmed; and which arises out of a shared incident and within a shared history.  It is formed through the interaction of two people, where the weighting between unconscious being and conscious interpretation is unevenly balanced between them. For how much is due to Christa T.’s own words?  Her selection, and the value she gives them (and which her body language would have confirmed), helps the narrator to fix the impression.  For a significant part of Christa T.’s identity will rely upon her self-presentation, and its “fit” with her friend’s experience; which confirms it.  Her recollection of the funeral distils that personality into a well-defined image; like a new painting in an old style.  Although how much of the values in the story, and the way she describes it, depends upon her understanding of her friend; the relationship between them?  With someone else there might be a different emphasis; or the liveliness of its telling could be diminished.[v]

A close reading of Hume suggests that our identities are partly created by our friends and colleagues; we exist in them, at least to a degree. Part of our identity, that is, has an independent existence over which we have only some or no control; it is in the outside world, inside other people… We are created by others!  Of course, in the media world, and amongst office gossip, these “identities” will detach themselves from the human substance altogether; they will be mere creations by people who know nothing of the actual person. However, the really interesting situations are with family and close friends; for here there is a tension between fact and idea, where the overlap between a person’s actual character and their representation within another person will be at it’s most acute. The question then becomes which representation is more correct, or closest to the truth: do we have privileged access over our own identity? Yes, if it is our being (for that self ‘we only know that it is’); but are we the best judges of ourselves as object?

The point Schopenhauer makes very strongly is that our personalities are not situated in the brain, and that our consciousness is not our character; although it will have the most material at its disposal to translate and understand itself. But will it have the ability? What if someone cannot properly read their own personality, for they lack the capacity? They read War and Peace with an English-Russian lexicon.  Both we, and those close to us, can only consciously understand ourselves as an object; which is open to all to interpret. Yet some of our friends’ understanding might be greater than our own – they have a touch and a feel, an acuteness, that we lack. In this case where does the truth lie; who has the greatest grasp of our character? Will our close friends have more of it, than we do? This may be possible!  Though with certainty we can say that at the very least, in the world of language and ideas, and of ordinary discourse, part of our identity will be situated outside ourselves in our friends and in our families. It will have an independent existence in their conscious minds; and it will have a strong validity.

If we return to Hume - and his bundle of perceptions, and his memory discovering the connections, and the imagination combining the ideas - it seems that an understanding of our character, our identity creation, can be done by another person; who shares many of the same perceptions, because they have experienced them too. Our partner, or our family, may hold an equally valid part of our identity, of which we are consciously unaware.  And that identity will be both as object and experience (Kant’s: we only know that it is).[vi] I think this may be true; but it leads to a labyrinth, as the novel shows. For as the narrator tries to uncover as much of Christa T.’s life as possible, to uncover her character through interviews and public facts, the further away she goes from herself, from her own experience of her friend; and the less, perhaps, she understands her. To find her in artefacts and other people’s stories is to reduce the importance of their own shared experiences; to lose her own perceptions to other people’s ideas. Thus the more information she discovers, the wider she casts her net, the greater the distance from her own character she goes; and facts replace her own impressions and memories. She loses Christa T. to other people. The narrator captures this well:

Mightn’t the net that has been woven and set for her finally turn out to be incapable of catching her? The sentences I have written, yes. Also the ways she has travelled, a room she has lived in, a landscape near and dear to her, a house, even a feeling – but not herself. For she’s hard to catch. Even if I could do it, faithfully present everything about her that I’ve known or experienced, even then it’s conceivable that the person to whom I tell the story, whom I need and whose support I solicit, might finally know nothing about her.
As good as nothing.

“Herself” is both that no-one can ever know; and those impressions she created when they met, those times when Christa T. became an object for themselves together.  This latter is her friend’s identity; which cannot be captured entirely by facts and words; for in part it is unconscious experience.  Moreover, part of that identity, the interaction between them, has become fused into the narrator’s own character.  Christa T. has helped to shape it; that indescribable something that she herself is, that part she senses but cannot know.[vii]  Thus the tension, with the narrator so close to grasping the mystery; but ultimately failing, for it cannot all be caught in words; while she has collected too much other stuff that dilutes her own experience, her own creation of her friend’s identity.

…the identity of his person… rests on the identical will and on its unalterable character; it is also just this that makes the expression of the glance unalterable. (Schopenhauer)

Thus all of Christa T. exists in that one moment she blew the trumpet. Move away from that, and you lose her; as the narrator discovers. And Christa T. herself knew this:

Among her papers are various fragments written in the third person: she, with whom she has associated herself, whom she was careful not to name, for what name could she have given her? She, who knows she must always be new, and see anew, over and over again; and who can do what she must wish to do. She, who knows only the present and won’t let herself be deprived of the right to live according to the laws of her own being.

The laws of her own being? She? Are these not Schopenhauer’s unchangeable and indestructible Will? That part of ourselves that is intimate with, but also independent of, our conscious minds? And which exists always in the present; but, as against Hume, is part of a consistent identity.

The “real” self, that self behind appearances, can never be caught; no matter how fine the net. Its discovery is a chimera. This misunderstanding about what can, and what cannot, be discovered leads to the narrator’s confusion; and the final enlightenment: of a she that cannot be named. Her quest has taken her from what she knows to a place she can never know; and she gets lost in her search; just like Hume when he tried to find the kernel of himself in reason.[viii] For she is looking for “ultimate causes”, for a meaning that she can never know, because it is outside her (and our) capabilities: only each individual, only Christa T., can experience herself as she really is. All we can grasp is the impression, that moment of creation out in the street, when the trumpet blows and you recognise a friend.

Then she began to blow, or to shout, there’s no proper word for it… So there she was, walking along in front, stalking head-in-air along the curb, and suddenly she put a rolled newspaper to her mouth and let go with her shout: HOOOHAAHOOO – something like that. She blew her trumpet and the off-duty sergeants and corporals of the local defense corps stopped and stared and shook their heads at her. Well, she’s cuckoo, that’s for sure. Now you see what she can be like, one of the other girls said to me.

That’s Christa T, always and forever.

[i] Gabriel Josipovici also captures something of this self-contained quality, as if a person is born with a knowledge of the world fully formed inside them, in his novel about Pierre Bonnard: Contre-Jour.
[ii] There is a tension, of course, which may also account for why many people don’t like workWith friends you can be more “natural”; less self-conscious.  The mask is transparent.
[iii] Which is really our friends’ need to recognise us.  They want us to be always the same (they also want minor variations to keep it interesting); for it makes us easier to understand and accept; like brands and soap operas we all need the habit of identity; it gives us cognitive stability.  The question then arises of how much do we live inside these other people’s creations; and are conditioned by them.  I will come back to this later. 
With friends who’ve known each other for years there may come a point where the created identity outweighs the present reality.  The image they formed at twenty is still used when they are fifty…  It can take a long time for people to realise this is happening; and is especially acute where aspects of someone’s character has developed significantly over the years.  What Schopenhauer’s quote, later in the piece, misses is that other people will only see parts of our character at any one time; while that character itself is far more multifarious; with different aspects needing to flower at different stages of our life. 
 Our characters have a tension between what is permanent and what changes. It is like a town, with its central square and the suburbs that grow around it.  We identify the town not by the suburbs, but by the buildings of its centre.  However, over the years the nature of that town will be subtlety changed by its increase in size.  So with our characters, the most important part is that which doesn’t change, at least not fundamentally; but this is not all of us.
[iv] Though are our true selves merely willing and not willing, and the related feelings and emotions?” That metaphysical Will when manifested in a human seems also to include an identity, linked to our consciousness. What Schopenhauer doesn’t quite capture is that link between the Will and our minds. For where do our individual characters come from?  Are they fused with the will at birth?  If so, our will has something more than the metaphysical will found in the rest of nature. Is it in our consciousness?  It can’t be, though it is manifested there; where it achieves a degree of solidity and permanence.  What does this suggest?  Our character is formed in the interactions between the will and our consciousness; but is situated in neither (at least not entirely).
            Noam Chomsky, in a completely different context, discusses the current fashion to treat our consciousness as close to being “solved”; that it will be explained within the parameters of our current understanding of matter.  He disagrees, suggesting that consciousness is still a mystery.  Nevertheless, he believes that any ultimate explanation will have to be a material one, but argues that our idea of matter will first have to change.  He makes a comparison with the reduction of Chemistry to Physics in the last century, which first required a significant modification of our conception of the physical.  His point is that over time our understanding of matter has undergone substantial revision; its definition is far wider than even 150 years ago; and will have to change again in the future.  Although like Schopenhauer he is sceptical of our ability to ever penetrate the ultimate mysteries. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind
[v] See DIY Worlds for Richard Lewontin’s suggestion that all organic life creates an atmosphere around them.  It is highly suggestive of both our creative capacities, and how much is made within the event itself; in this case in the interaction between the two friends.
[vi] A significant part of our understanding of a person is not conscious.  We somehow feel it.  A further consequence then arises: do we feel not only their identity, but their character too?
[vii] Schopenhauer assumes our characters are impervious to outside influence: they are born at birth. But is this true?  Isn’t there a part of our characters, albeit minor, that is malleable, and will be influenced and moulded by the external environment?  Take the example of confidence, which in turn will have a significant effect on the presentation of ourselves to the outside world.  Will the influence of our childhood have no effect on that at all?
[viii] See In Pieces for more comment.

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