that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Playing the role of yourself

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I have a daily feature on my blog called Thought for the Day. It’s the first post every day, always scheduled for 9 a.m. Usually, it’s a quote from someone who was either born on that date or who died on that date.

Recently, the quote I chose was from psychiatrist Thomas Szasz: “People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.”

Fellow blogger Georgy Riecke posted a comment later that day saying only, “Or steals.” Later still, I responded to Georgy’s comment: “The way great poets do, according to Eliot.”

I was alluding to a fairly well-known passage in Eliot’s essay on the English dramatist Philip Massinger in The Sacred Wood:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

Naturally, this got me to thinking about the only self I have first-hand knowledge of, my own.

I started wondering if I had found myself, created myself, or stolen myself. My considered opinion is “all of the above.”

But the least important factor seems to have been the creative one. The self you arrive at is a kind of collage, and the creativity involved has to do with discerning what bits and pieces may be of use and figuring out how to fit them together.

I suppose that the earliest sense of self comes from the feeling you get as to how others regard you. I am certain that the foundation of my own sense of self came from my mother.

I have mentioned before that, while I am not much of a fan of Sigmund Freud, I have always felt he was on to something when he said that “a man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror.” That “feeling of a conqueror” is a bit much, but I am pretty sure that your mother’s unconditioned love serves to powerfully propel you through life.

Eventually, of course, you find yourself exercising creative control over your self. I think I have mentioned before in this column that my own self seems to have coalesced when I was about 15, in February 1957, when I first read Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” The bright sunlight of that day in February fills my mind even now as I write about it more than half a century later.

Given my working-class background, it was inevitable that I would have to steal a lot to arrange myself into anything presentable. The nuns of the Society of the Sacred Heart taught me how to speak properly. They also had a wonderful way of equating morality with etiquette (“gentlemen and ladies just don’t do that”).They also made it clear that people will judge you by your manner of dress and grooming (my wife once remarked that I paid more attention to my nails than she did).

In fact, I would certainly not be who I am were it not for the nuns and priests who saw something in me and encouraged me in intellectual pursuits.

But I was also a loner, which is more of an advantage than you might think. The person who can stand apart from the crowd elicits a certain respect from the crowd. And while I was no genius, I was smart enough, and I had no problem helping those of my fellow students who were less capable than I, and who proved grateful for my help.

I spent a lot of time during my high school years going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and just strolling about. It was the beginning of a lifelong habit of just looking at paintings and sculptures in galleries and museums. I didn’t seriously read about art until long after I had first looked at a lot of it.

Books gave me lots of clues, of course. Who were these fellows Mozart and Bach and Beethoven one kept reading about? Luckily for me, there was at that time in Philadelphia a very good classical musical music station, WFLN. So I was able to combine being a first-generation rock-and-roller with a growing knowledge and appreciation of classical music.

All of these elements went into becoming the person I happen to be. You will notice, though, that the things I have been talking about have been mostly props and costumes. So you may wonder: What has any of this to do with finding or creating oneself? It sounds more like outfitting someone for a stage play.

Well, how one speaks and dresses and comports oneself, the books one reads and the music one listens to, one’s pastimes, are all outward signs of who one is. I don’t know if  you can only get to know yourself by means of such, but I do know that I have only been able to know myself by such means. Agere sequitur esse. Action follows being. You are what you do. Since you choose to do what to do — even if, as Georgy would have it, you have to steal ideas from  others as to what to do — what you choose to do is what defines who you are.

Shakespeare may have exaggerated a bit when he said that “all the world’s a stage,” but there can be little doubt that each of us is playing a role of some sort.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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2 Responses to “Playing the role of yourself”

  1. What you describe is a sort of indivuation of the self, especially in the sense that the self is what makes us different from each other. And you favor nuture over nature in your article. So because you grew up Philly when and how you as a individual grew up in and around Philly, with the people you know and the experiences you have had, you are different as a self than I am who did all this differently and a decade plus behind you in Lowell. Your sense of self is what makes you Frank, and who you introduce when you say, “Hi, I’m Frank, specifically Frank Wilson of Philadelphia.”

    The other side of self is the Self we are born with, our nature. It is what we all have in common. We could each bring Jesus into our hearts, as they say, and let Him speak and act through us. This bringing Jesus in might skew my argument here, but he is a perfect way to illustrate if the meditiation is right.

    Religious experiences, or mystical experiences, were categorized by William James as you know. In their purest sense, they are prototypical experiences which our prototypical selves can experience. This speaks to the Self that we all share. We cannot individuate our selves unless we begin un-individuated, or merged.

    Another aspect of maturity is to re-merge. Books help us with this, in their anecdotal ways. If I read that you have done such and so in Philladelphia, I can be empathetic in the sense that I can see and feel what my individuated self has missed out on by being so discrete and separate from you. Same with thoughts, each penny’s worth that we share.

    There is a psychic experience that is downright mystical itself, the sense of having a memory that cannot be your own. This seems to indicate a breakdown in the physical landscape and timescape such that we are able to re-merge. A common one is deja vu, the sense that you have experienced something before, something which would have been impossible. Of course, part of the impossibility is that even if you had experienced it before, in the developmental point of view, you were not that very same self so many years ago. And yet through a powerful deja vu, you most certainly are that very same–as whomever that was having the experience the first time around. I would submit, that you would be the very same self as anyone else having a deja vu experience as well.

  2. Your response to my column, Rus, is more profound than the column. What interested most is your reference to deja vu. The only such experience I have had — true deja vu — happened when I first visited Philadelphia’s Central Library. As I was walking down the grand stairway the first time, I had the experience not exactly that I had done this before so much as the feeling that I was in the past doing something then. The present, for a few moments, had disappeared, and so, I guess, had the person, I was in the present. It was very weird and I’m not sure if this describes as accurately as I might.

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