Dredging the self

This Monday, I dug up a crate of my old writing from my parent’s cellar. Journals,

Ah yes, my high school self...
Ah yes, my high school self…

poems, old short stories, math notebooks lined with marginal musings. Anything I could find. I fished love letters from my closet and photographs from my mothers’ desk, piling it all up like autumn leaves on my bedroom floor.

For a few days, I dug trough the stack.

OK, so “stack” may be a little exaggerated. But it’s a significant pile. I’m reread it all to revisit those hazy landscapes of my not-too-distant childhood, verifying events and reviving old memories, all in a pointed search of self.

I’m writing a memoir for my Honor’s project. I know I could half-ass most of it. But I’d get nothing from that besides reams of pleasant-sounding pulp. I don’t want that.

I’m after my own self, after all.

As Camus wrote in a 1955 preface to one of his youthful works, “A man’s work is nothing but his slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images, in whose presence his heart first opened.”

I’ve only hit the trail head of a long trek.

Walking the streets of my old neighborhood, shuffling through old books, seeing old friends–and of course, whittling down my pile–I’ve rediscovered some of those images, and they have their own beautiful topography.

Even at these early stages, I’ve discovered some things.

First, I’m not the same person I was. I look at some words and think, “That’s not me.” The point-blank thought eclipsed me at first. I was reading the journals of another man, the artifacts of a different time. I was trespassing, not revisiting.

It reminded me of the “bundle theory” of self. The two most notable proponents of this view were Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha–yes, The Buddha–and the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Both believed the self was a bundle of experience, sensations slipping in and out of consciousness like ringlets of 35mm film speeding through projector. If we wanted to find a deeper, solid essential self, we’d find a void.

The Buddha, teacher of "no self."
The Buddha, teacher of “no self.”

The Buddha called this doctrine “no-self.” The self was an illusion, willed into existence by our clinging and the ignorance of our perception. When we see the reality that there is no individual self, we see we never existed as an individual being. As Nagarjuna, a famous 2nd-Century sage summarized it, “One who does not grasp onto the ‘I’ and ‘mine,’ that one does not exist.”

This realization allows us to escape the painful cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, thus attaining nirvana.

The evolution of Buddhism as a culture and a religion, with many contrary varieties, complicates the matter. But the idea remains similar: the individual, substantial self we designate as “I” is a vicious illusion.

So, in this view, I was right seeing my writing as the writing of a stranger. At that time, I was a different person. Literally, a different self.

However, these views fly in the face of what most people feel. They feel something is essential and continuous. Contrary to bundle theory is “substance” theory: things have an essential substance, an “essence.” Aristotle and Plato would both fall under this view.

For them, the self is a single entity with its own essence. It is not reinvented each moment. It is not a “bundle” of perceptions. It is something that asserts its own properties, and although it may change states, it retains its essence or substance.

Souls provide a nice example. A body dies but the soul lives on, somehow transporting the original self that inhabited the body into another state, or maybe another body.

Many philosophers fall someplace in between these extreme views or have another view entirely. Locke thought the “self” has some level of solidity via memory. Sartre thought we’re born into existence and must use our actions to create our own essence, giving us the utter freedom to craft our being into something unique, as we start life like a lump of Play Dough and have to shape it.

My own view runs closest to Camus’ quote, and as I dredge my own experiences and reflect on them, I feel even closer. I’m skeptical that the self is a substance, but I do think certain images sustain it.  For example, I have the stars.

They’re not normal experiences, the sort of perceptions that slip by, like what I had for breakfast Monday. They’re also different from other memories. I remember learning to ride a bike as a child, but the memory itself is neither moving nor definitive.

Raw experience, even collected as memory, is flat and textureless. But when I see the stars, I recall looking at them my whole life, longing to hold them or mimic their stoic resilience in high school or seeing them as ideals I can never reach in college.

Or I recall stargazing with my father as a kid, the warmth of his hand on the cold night, or laying next to my girlfriend on the moist grass, staring at the specks, the last night before she graduated.

As in a story, the stars transcend the individual memories and become symbols and motifs, images I use to process the world and define my self.

For me, writing lets me find those images again, buried in the detritus of years. Dredged from the bottom and polished, they clarify my self again.

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One thought on “Dredging the self

  1. Pingback: My brother « Backyard Philosophy

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