When I first lived among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire with my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, at first I felt relieved to hear that the language of the Beng did not conjugate verbs. Thank goodness, I thought, what a friendly language—the ever-morphing ways of verbs had been my downfall with both French and Spanish. My relief didn’t last long, though, since Alma and I soon discovered that the Beng conjugate pronouns, not verbs (with a few exceptions—aren’t there always exceptions when it comes to language?).
So a different linguistic challenge confronted me: to adjust to the notion of a past tense I, a present tense I, and a future tense I, and to move with ease through such pronoun transformations in a conversation.
It wasn’t easy—for me, learning another language (and I’ve tried to learn four) is never easy. But the more I thought about it, the idea that a person, not the action, changes profoundly in time began to make more and more sense. Here are two photos that I think aptly illustrate the point, captioned in English and Beng.
He ran/E bé (E: the past tense of he; bé: run)
He will run/O bé (O: the future tense of he; bé: run)
Though running is an action replete with all the physical particularities of any individual moving through space (particularities that no language can completely encompass), I think one might safely assert that the different ages of the two runners above are where the deepest change has occurred. My five-year old self is different from my fifteen-year old self, is different from my thirty-year old self is different from my current (and newly minted) sixty-year old self.
So which “self” am I?
“The self is not constant,” the actress Thandie Newton says, in her recent TED talk, “Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself.” Ms. Newton’s father is English, her mother Zimbabwean, and she spent a good deal of her early life negotiating a place within the two contrasting halves of her supposedly singular self.
What she eventually found was not one place to reside, but many, as she took on the challenges of inhabiting the characters she portrayed throughout her film career. “No matter how other these selves might be, they’re all related, in me,” she declares.
You bet! The essayist Carl H. Klaus could easily be offering a coda to Newton’s words when, in his marvelously varied collection The Made-Up Self, he observes, “The drama of one’s personality depends, after all, on the dramatis personae one is capable of performing.”
The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa understood dramatis personae. He engaged in a life-long project of giving names, identities and different poetic oeuvres to his many inner voices, turning the contradictory selves most of us gloss over into a literary salon. As Álvaro de Campos, one of Pessoa’s accomplished inner selves, wrote:
I study myself but can’t perceive.
I’m so addicted to feeling that
I lose myself if I’m distracted
From the sensations I feel.
This liquor I drink, the air I breathe,
Belong to the very way I exist:
I’ve never discovered how to resist
These hapless sensations I conceive.
Nor have I ever ascertained
If I really feel what I feel.
Am I what I seem to myself—the same?
Is the I I feel the I that’s real?
Even with feelings I’m a bit of an atheist.
I don’t even know if it’s I who feels.
So why are we inclined to gloss over our multiple selves? Our language tells us to do so. The “self” is a pretty pushy little word, asserting in its seemingly modest but authoritative way that we are defined by a unitary identity, rather than a concatenation of competing facets, each catching and reflecting a different light, other possibilities. For me, the Beng view of identity, as a morphing property expressed through tense changes, is far more insightful than the meager, static definition offered by the English language. Something else the seemingly solid word “self” obscures is its own morphing history, since the Western notion of self has changed, radically so, over time, and Douglas Glover charts this expertly in his essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought.”
Recently, not long after watching the Thandie Newton TED talk, I came upon a rather extraordinary photo series featured in Guernica, “Self Study,” by the Iranian/American artist Natalie N. Abbassi, a series inspired by the dilemma of identity:
“It has always been a struggle for me to explain myself, who I truly am, and how I should or shouldn’t act in culturally diverse situations. Occasionally I feel confused, proud, and even awkward about how to deal with the differences of my two halves. Am I Iranian? Am I American? Should I be Muslim from my father or Jewish from my mother?”
Abbassi approaches this struggle by photographing her two halves as buddies, engaging in daily activities—driving, playing cards, or running—side-by-side yet each maintaining her defining characteristics. Would that we all could look into the imperfect mirror of our inner differences, and clink glasses!
“I Study Myself But Can’t Perceive,” by Fernando Pessoa/Álvaro de Campos, translated by Richard Zenith, from Fernando Pessoa & Co.