Friday, November 11, 2005

Do I contradict myself?

What do we really mean when we talk about ourselves, our self? Is there really such a thing? Or is who we are a variable that changes with time and situation?

At the heart of our conceptualisation of the self is this notion of identity, meaning one, meaning a stable and consistent set of values, beliefs and preferences that define who we are - in other words, a personality. But how true is this conceptualisation? And even if it is generally applicable, does it need to be? Anecdotally, we know that there are people who behave very differently in different contexts, so that we find ourselves saying things like "Oh, he / she was a completely different person then". It is possible to possess multiple identities, multiple selves?

Understand, I don't mean this in the involuntary, schizophrenic sense. I mean, rather, can we choose to adopt different identities, can we choose to be different things with different people, in different settings? Understand also, that I'm not talking about a multiplicity of identities that comes from pretense [1] - most of us, at some time or the other, have pretended to be someone we're not. What I'm talking about is the act of authentically experiencing different identities as being true, of genuinely relating to these different persona as all being the 'real' you.

Is this possible? I believe it is. I think it is possible to find stimulation and satisfaction in a wide variety of different (and sometimes opposed) life experiences, and in some cases the only way to explore those experiences fully may be to construct (and live) different selves for each. Say, for instance, you're really interested in physics and poetry. As a physicist, you'd need to be logical, fact-based, analytical. As a poet, you'd need to be creative, impulsive, unstructured. My contention is that you could do both - that you could live your life in a way where those who worked with you as a physicist found you structured and precise, and those who watched you write knew you as someone who was chaotic and wilful. (Whether you'd be really good at either is a different matter, and one that need not concern us here).

How can this work, you ask? What does it mean to have preferences and 'values' that are so variable? First, I think that different personal attributes have different salience depending on context. So, for instance, you may be deeply religious at home (I'm not, but just by way of example) but not consider religion to be an important component of work place interaction. So actions that you might be opposed to at home may be perfectly acceptable to you in the workplace. In an Indian context, the classic example of this is people who eat non-vegetarian food outside but don't eat it at home. For these people, there is no contradiction in such behaviour, because for them, home is a very different environment from outside.

That said, I do think it is true that maintaining fundamentally different selves requires a certain degree of control over one's emotions / preferences. Or, alternatively, it requires the ability to switch between selves, to throw oneself whole-heartedly into a new personality so that it doesn't just feel real, it is real. In some sense, this is the creed of the good actor taken to an extreme. Whether this is truly possible is, unfortunately, a question that cannot be emprically answered (how would you ever seperate what was pretense from what was real) but personally I think it can be done. More, I think it's one of the most exciting and fulfilling ways to live your life. To the extent that we have only one life to live, adopting a multiplicity of selves may well be the only (though admittedly imperfect) way to try out a number of different conceptualisations of who we could be.


[1] From a purely existential perspective, of course, it's not clear that there's any real distinction between the two - to be something is to pretend to be it, only with absolute conviction.


Cheshire Cat said...

Say, for instance, that you're really interested in economics and poetry. Your contention is that you could do both :)

But this post itself is evidence of that, don't you think? Riffing off the Whitman line, but doing it in such an analytical way. Selves switching on anf off, on and off, in unpredictable ways...

And there can be hierarchies of selves. Many selves within the writer, for instance. Novelists. And more intriguing still, the strange case of Fernando Pessoa.

Anonymous said...

"To the extent that we have only one life to live, adopting a multiplicity of selves may well be the only (though admittedly imperfect) way to try out a number of different conceptualisations of who we could be."

of who all we could be!!! Are you saying that we try out different personas under different circumstances/ with different people/ with time only to find the one final personality that befits us?

And in the end - how does it matter? As long as we have enjoyed each version of us and felt true/ non-contradictory/ non-hypocritical, why should we strive to find just one???

Mrudula said...

I think many of us live that way and find happiness in it. (The moot point being that it should be ethical, one can't be a drug lord and a poet and get away with it.The poet may get away but the drug lord won't.)People in general are multifaceted and it is their choice to be that way or therwise. But multifaceted personalities are far more interesting.

Falstaff said...

Cat: Ah yes, Pessoa. What an intriguing, intriguing man.

Anon: huh? Tempted as I am to take on a self that would agree with what I'm supposed to have said, I'm afraid THAT interpretation is entirely your own. The line you quote does not suggest in any way (nor is it my contention) that there is a need to converge upon a particular self. The point of trying different things is simply to try on different things - not to evaluate them with some other purpose in mind.

Mru: Are you trying to imply that if I want to be a poet I need to flush the two kgs of cocaine hidden under my sock drawer down the toilet?

Mrudula said...

It depends on whether you are a junkie or a pusher.

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