Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000
The disappearing self
In today's post-modern world, the very notion of "individualism" (with its attendant notion of a stable "self") seems a little quaint and musty. The notion has been under siege now for well over a century from all flanks.
D. H. Lawrence thundered against the stable ego right from the beginning and Freud split it up into the menage trois of Ego, Superego and Id - an uneasy triple alliance with the wobbly Hamlet-like Ego the designated leader of the pack under the general understanding "Where Id was, Ego shall be." Don't ask me about poor old Superego (or "conscience" in layman's language) - it was always cast as the hapless Lepidus of the triumvirate, just tagging along for the ride. The damage to the hitherto impregnable cogito has been rather more extensive lately under the unceasing barrage of post-modernism. The speaking subject - the hitherto sovereign "I" of spoken discourse - now appears to be not just a referent of the first person singular but rather a fragmentary entity produced by the very act of speaking. In writing, it is even worse, nothing beyond a mere grammatical fiction! Clearly, then, like many other things in life, the "I" has seen better days.
Many people today - and not just in the wicked West - feel overwhelmed, anxious, fragmented and confused. Even psychotherapists - society's accredited healers - are having their own identity crisis. According to the latest reports, many of them are themselves in therapy! A sizable minority of today's urban dwellers feel lonely and alienated. They haven't found a hobby or interest that consistently holds their attention. A friend of my daughter visited her in hospital the other day. She had acquired an expensive pup a few days back - it was a Dobermann, I think. But already she was making plans to give it away. For now it is no longer a case of the best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity but a case of loss of belief all round. If the centre doesn't hold today, it is - as Jean Francois Lyotard has pointed out in his influential The Postmodern Condition (1984) - because there are just too many centres and not one of them holds. The truth is that the very nature of belief itself has changed. People do not believe so much as have several simultaneous - even conflicting - beliefs. People seem to be moving through different belief systems - sometimes in the course of a single day! - cultures, lifestyles, inhabiting them in rather tentative ways. Indeed it is hard to imagine a contemporary world in which people didn't or couldn't shop around among different realities. Just look at India's current political scenario with its bewilderingly shifting alliances!
Let me illustrate. The wife of a former student of mine - a Roman Catholic - is enrolled for a Ph.D programme in molecular biology in Bangalore's prestigious Indian Institute of Science. This involves testing on live animals. Her husband - an Anglican whom she loves very much - is an ardent vegetarian and a passionate anti-vivisectionist. The marriage has apparently survived because she looked after two of his pet baby tortoises and a badly injured pup which she painstakingly nursed back to health. But there were complications along the way. The rather dour father-in-law - a Tamil Christian with set views - wanted the baby tortoises out citing a hoary Tamil saying "Amai nuzhainda veedum / Ameena puhunda veedum vilangadu" (which, in English, roughly translated, would be "A house into which a tortoise or court official has entered is doomed to perdition"). The mother-in-law, more devout than Tamil, fell back on Christian verities and praised all His creations and apparently welcomed the baby tortoises. The molecular biologist now visits a house unencumbered by any of the creatures of God she might have to dissect on her working days. Yet another former student - a much - travelled Madhwa Brahmin - is married to a nuclear scientist from Punjab and they have a daughter who has just turned 15. The daughter is a strict vegetarian at home but, on outings with her father, she is not. Here is yet another post-modern situation with an unsolved weltanschauung.
Faced with such conflicting world views, each incompatible with the other, one can seek refuge only in irony. Traditionally, irony was regarded as a mild form of sarcasm implying a disbelief in what appeared on the surface as true. Socrates, with his relentless questioning and "Know thyself" manifesto, is the supreme exemplar. But, today, there is simply no self to know to start with since it has simply disappeared under the combined assault of various modern disciplines. As Sudhir Kakar once told me, the Socratic maxim should now read "Know thyselves" since there is no longer a single unitary self to know but multiple selves. Irony can turn anything topsy turvy by "redescribing" our "final vocabularies" which are constantly beset by the contingency and fragility of the "selves" that we construct out of them.
Let me explain what we mean by "final vocabulary." It has a thin top layer of flexible ubiquitous terms like "true," "good," "right" and "beautiful" and a relatively more enduring and thicker foundation layer which has concepts like "God" etc. Ironists, who like to hedge their bets, simply play off the new against the old, the top layer against the more sturdy bottom layer. The story goes that when Bertrand Russell was imprisoned in 1918 for his opposition to the war, the jailer, following prison routine, asked Russell for his religion. The sagacious and always ironic Russell said he was an agnostic. The jailer, after some initial bewilderment, brightened and said "I guess it's all right. We all worship the same God, don't we?" The jailer, here, was doing his own bit of "redescribing" an important component of mankind's "final vocabulary" - "God" - without being quite aware of it!
It was once fondly believed that modern science will rid us of all superstition and we will all live in the Brave New World soon. But multiple realities and, worse, multiple approaches to reality make the task of making sense of these realities that much more difficult. Michel Foccult's advice to "prefer what is positive and multiple, differences over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems" looks splendid on paper but difficult to practice. Knowledge today only disables.
Maybe, in this millennial confusion, the only individuality that is open to us is through the "prejudices" we have been shedding, one by one, thanks to Freud, Darwin and co. The cultural psychologist, Richard Shweder, in a recent Daedalus essay ("Why Do Men Barbecue?" and "Other Postmodern Ironies of Growing Up in the Decade of Ethnicity" (Winter 1993) quotes his friend, the literary critic Anatole Broyard's maxim: "Hang on to your prejudices, they are the only taste you have got. "Because without a minimum amount of prejudice (or mild paranoia if you like) we will not notice things anymore!
In the post modern world of cable TV and metaphysical jet lag, the best we can do is to stay on the move and keep one's options open - for some brand new prejudices. Prejudices, anyone?
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