The Self Is Not Constant

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.

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September 15th, 2011 by admin

A Cloth of Many Colored Strips

Back in 1979-1980, then in 1985 and 1993, my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, and I lived in small, remote villages of the Beng people of the Ivory Coast. In recent days Alma and I have found it difficult to watch the tragic news coming from the country: videos of military strikes and violence in Abidjan, the country’s largest city, and photos of dead bodies strewn across streets we’d once walked.

All this has seemed like the horrific endgame of a lovely country’s slow, 30-year long downward spiral of corruption, economic and political crisis and civil war, and I’m reminded of this quote from the Ivorian writer Amadou Kourouma’s novel The Suns of Independence (a classic of West African literature): “God made this life like a cloth of many colored strips: one strip the color of happiness and joy, one strip the color of poverty and illness, one strip the color of insult and dishonor.”

The country’s recent troubles were spurred in large part by ethnic demonizing and exclusion; this is a terrible irony considering the great strength of Ivory Coast’s ethnic and cultural diversity. A recent film and music project, Abidja’Taam, le goût d’Abidjan, celebrates that diversity.

The CD is a collection of slow, soulful songs from a wide range of Ivorian musicians, a 45-minute gentle rebuke to the country’s recent madness. Listening to this beautiful music, I can imagine that once again Ivory Coast will find itself settled on the strip of cloth that’s the color of happiness and joy. Here is a video from the project, the song “Don,” sung by Tiken Jah Fakoly.

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April 13th, 2011 by admin

The Companionable Presence of a Book

Now that I’m recovering from cataract surgery, I find that I can’t read for more than short stretches of time, and I’m reminded of how essential to my day are the acts of reading and writing. I’m the sort of person who carries a book along wherever I go, on the chance that I’ll find a moment or two to plunge back into the unfolding world of a novel or short story. I carry a notebook as well, to capture whatever small patch of inspiration I might stumble across. These days my iPad often doubles as book and notebook.

So, sitting here at home on the couch, impatiently letting my eyes rest before I try a little more reading, I’ve been thinking back to the unusual settings I’ve carried the companionable presence of a book. When I was nineteen I canoed for about 400 miles on the Yukon River one stretch of a summer, and I can remember reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse while sitting by the edge of the water after a long day of paddling. I don’t understand now why in the world I thought this novel would be a proper fit with a place so wild that we could travel for days without seeing another soul, where we could turn a corner and surprise a moose into disappearing up the riverbank and into the forest. But I do recall the exhilaration of reading the passage where Mr. Ramsey’s “splendid mind” has reached the Q of knowledge but cannot move further to R, while before me the midnight sun slipped briefly behind the peaks of the Canadian Rockies. I still have my copy of the book, a bit waterlogged from a tumble into white water.

I’ve lived in small villages in the West African country of Ivory Coast, where my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, has conducted her research on the culture of the Beng people, and of course I brought along a pile of books for those long journeys. In the photo below, I’m sitting before our two-room mud-brick house in the village of Kosangbé, writing in a notebook, perhaps inspired after reading from one of the two books beside me. The book on the top is The Voice that Is Great within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, edited by Hayden Carruth. I still have that copy too, rich with the scent of African dust.

Two stories of reading in Africa most stand out in my memory. The first goes back to 1980, when I read Njal’s Saga, perhaps the greatest of the medieval Icelandic sagas, filled with blood feuds that last generations, punctuated by complex legal maneuverings between the aggrieved parties at a formal gathering called The Thing. Again, I wonder, what possessed me to bring such a book to a tropical country? (I also read a great deal of African literature while living in Ivory Coast, including Okot p’Bitek’s magnificent Song of Lawino). But this particular story of my reading comes right after I finished the book, sitting in that same palm rib chair pictured above, and realizing as a chill swept through me that once again malaria had come my way.

It was the most serious attack I ever endured, and deep in the night, with my temperature stuck at an alarming 106 degrees, my wife made a re-hydration drink for me in another room while I lay beneath mosquito netting, listening to the clank of her metal spoon stirring against a metal cup. That clanking transformed, in my fevered mind, into the sound and sight of two ghostly Viking warriors—right out of Njal’s Saga—standing beside the bed and striking at each other’s sword and shield. A memorable moment in my history of reading, but I do not recommend anyone seeking out malaria for a similar experience.

The second memory also involves illness, unfortunately. In 1993, near the end of a summer’s stay in the Beng village of Asagbé, I came down with pneumonia, and spent the good part of two weeks knocked out in bed. By that time I’d gone through nearly all the books I brought along to the village. Only one was left, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and what an unsettling fit that was, as I hacked away painfully beneath mosquito netting while reading about the doomed coughing patients of an isolated tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps.

On the other hand, reading Miguel Torga’s Tales & More Tales from the Mountain while exploring the wild northern ranges of Portugal with my family a few years ago helped me to better understand the cunning behind this medieval stone-walled wolf trap we came upon.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has found a sometimes incongruous fit between the outer world of travel and the inner travel of reading. If anyone out there also has a strange or oddly fitting mix of book and place, feel free to leave a comment!

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July 15th, 2010 by admin