Whenever you submit a piece of writing, there’s often the requirement to ‘tell us a bit about yourself’.
Where does one start: reformed gambler, all-round lunatic and ragester; or mother of two, English tutor, likes tweed? Then there’s someone who was pulled over by the police at 4 a.m. on the M4 doing in excess of a ton, pulled out of a hedge by rozzers in N4 for brawling – let go with a warning, or the person who skid landed at the feet of two bobbies on the beat on the Isle of Dogs, when my bolting steed came down.
Which version of the self do people want?
This morning it’s: a 45 year old who likes passion fruit and hasn’t washed her hair since Saturday.
It could turn out awfully pretentious, this. Hopefully, not so much.
I have travelled alone, of course I have, but mainly in my own car. Or on a train. Once I flew to Guernsey on my own, and once I caught a train from Philadelphia to New York on my lonesome, but my last trip (researching the book) was the longest time I had spent travelling as any version of my self that I wished to be; given that I had no other person around to conform to.
I slept alone, ate alone, drove alone. Found my way places alone and navigated cultural differences alone. From time to time my deafness intruded enough to affect my understanding of what was being said, which added to the isolation. This is not a bad thing, it just is. I began to wonder… who am I? What am I doing here? I was about four thousand miles from the children that have given my life its main meaning for a decade. I was in the middle of a great continent and could, in theory, walk from the North Pole to the South. I was a dot on the globe. Actually, not even a dot.
We reference ourselves by what we do, who we share our space with, who we talk to every day. When everything is new and different, we have lost our own index. We can thumb the familiar looking pages, either frantically or wearily, but nothing reads the same any more. I think that is how I came to feel most at home with a nonagenarian, in her cabin by the lake in the middle of nowhere, because any familiarity in my travelling life was in talking to her, a process I had begun a year ago from my own front room. The setting and circumstances were unusual, but the voices we used were the same, recognisable, a touchstone. The rest of the time I was, in terms of my own view of my self, in flux.
I don’t think it has all settled yet. In fact, I will be rather disappointed when, and if, it does.
I am always going somewhere in my head. In the future, it would be nice to match more of the internal wanderings with the physical reality of the same.
More and more these days the regular acts of a consumer seem to be: find it yourself, read your own meter, enter your details online *YOU LEFT OUT SOME DETAILS!*, key the number into your telephone keyboard, say the digits after the beep, do it yourself, press the hash key, pack the goods yourself, pay via an automated service and withdraw via one too.
What I am trying to say is that, increasingly, our modes of consumption, are unmediated by a human being. We commune only with the product or service and some kind of computerised device. I could nearly, if I wanted, run my whole consumer life without speaking to another human being, ever.
In fact, I might try it, for a week and see what becomes of me. It would mean self-service at the supermarket, pay-at-the-pump petrol. It would mean online shopping and online bill payments. No act of consumption would be sullied by an interaction with a third party… Now, I know that this is sold to us as a more convenient way of managing our own affairs, but the truth is, it is far cheaper for the merchant. Get the mug punter to most of the work themselves and voilà – it improves our profit margins. Don’t think it will be left at that either; apparently some ticket agencies are now charging customers, who have bought tickets online, an additional cost to print off their own tickets at home… By that brass-necked reckoning, it’s not going to be long before we are charged an entrance fee to the supermarket. Has anyone noticed how their vaunted free delivery became more and more expensive over the years, with ‘premium ‘ time slots?
Anyway, that’s not really what gets on my nerves, not really. I don’t hark back fondly to the day’s of ‘Are You Being Served’. What annoys me is that when a business model is predicated on a consumer being left to their own devices for the bulk of the transaction because something seems to go badly wrong in the psyche: both in mine (the consumer) and in theirs (the staff). I can only liken it to when I worked in a shop and we had a quiet day – if a customer came in late in the day we had become totally inured to doing nothing at all and the instant feeling was one of irritation or outrage. Sort of, ‘here is a customer actually expecting my help… the nerve!’
I had to buy shoes for the children today. I went to a shop where the stock room is the shop. You find your own size. This makes a whole heap of mess because customers tend to rip out the paper stuffing from the boxes and not put the lids back on properly and make the stacks of boxes all look very raggedy indeed. The staff’s main job then seems to be going along behind the customer (probably on about an hour or two’s time lag) and restacking the boxes in the stock room/shop floor. Usually they are to be found up 10 feet high ladders shuffling the boxes. You would need a loudhaler to attract their attention, or a distress flare. Anyway, my daughter found a pair of boots that suited in a size 1 box. Unfortunately, there were two right feet in the box and one was a size 2 as well. There were no more size 1s in size 1 boxes and no more size 1s that had escaped into other boxes. So we tried a different style – right size – but only one in the box. The staff did not care and stacked the useless boxes neatly back with their contents of one boot, odd boots, unmatching sizes and two left feet for the next unsuspecting size 1 customer to have a complete headfuck over. I know the staff don’t care about the shoes or the customer because their job is stacking boxes and climbing ladders, not serving customers. I don’t blame them, it’s the culture of the model. it’s just that the whole self-service thing taken to extremes dehumanises us all. It reminds me of that band called ‘Pop will Eat Itself’ – so will consumers, in the end.
Some of us will nibble off our toes behind a mountain of size one boots (left feet only). Some of us will poke out our eyeballs when the machine shouts ‘UNEXPECTED ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA’. At least one person is going to saw off their hand when the machine says ‘Sorry, we didn’t understand that’ after they have been on hold for half an hour and I was nearly forced to cut out my tongue earlier when I had broken the automated system and got through to some kind of Stepford Call Centre worker who could only Speak From The Script.
It’s creeping up on us (if you are a modern global consumer) and you’d better watch out. Excessive consumption should come with a health warning, along the lines of, ‘Depersonalised consumption carries the risk of cannibalising one’s soul’. Here’s a more academic article on a related theme. Personally, I feel better for getting all that off my chest. But I am still trapped.
Yesterday’s post did not feel like my finest hour; I am not keen on admitting to having emotional reactions to washing lines. It made me think, does writing reveal the self, or does it just reveal whatever flotsam and jetsam happens to be floating through the mind, the psyche, at any given moment?
I can obviously only speak for myself. And I think that some ideas, reactions, moods are ephemera; given time they pass on by. You can buy ‘ephemera’ on eBay you know. I put my own on Amazon. If I write about these temporal phenomena, they are released on their way downstream and the process of making them into words allow me to stand on the bank, watching as they disappear. Other things are less easily worked through, becoming trapped in the whirlpools and eddies of my head. Round and round they go as my head becomes the body of water itself. Writing is, I suppose, a way of constructing something to hang onto as I am dragged by the current. A way of being in the whirlpool, without going under.
If there is a true self, then it is a slippery customer. It can be a narrative, a construct: linear, rhizomatic, tragic or comic – depending on your taste. It can be the sum total of your thoughts, or it can sit outside those: you are not your thoughts as various esoteric teachings have it.
That last statement has proved troublesome for me. When I first engaged with that possibility I found it terrifying… I was not my thoughts? But I liked my thoughts. I liked them rather a lot. I put the book down. Life flowed on towards the sea and the notion drifted onto my shores once again.
I am not my thoughts? Well surely that’s a thought in itself? That gives me a semantic problem. Is it what Wittgenstein meant when he said that ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world.’? On the other hand, it would be nice to separate out some version of self, from the person who tapped out a small-minded post about the neighbour’s washing line. I am not my thoughts, indeed.
How can we know self then if we are to go beyond language, as it seems we must if we are to buy into this logic? What good is turning the thoughts in my head into words through the keyboard, when the words are the limiting things themselves? I can only say this: I think I have had brief glimpses of understanding beyond words and if that is where a version of the self is to be found it may be the real and elusive self that we obfuscate under layers of history, culture and ego. I think that to get to it, it is not thinking that is required, but listening. And not listening with ears either, it is listening with hearts.
I accept this may read crazy to some, those who like logic and reason. I like logic and reason! But my experience is: they can only take you so far. Wittgenstein twigged this in the end, after a life of logic and reason, butting up against the limits of language, saying, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ So, we may as well return to the silence of the heart? Here’s some empirical evidence for those who aren’t convinced you can listen with it e.g. your heart has its own network of neurotransmitters and around 40,000 neurons…allowing it to sense, feel learn and remember. Perhaps, after all, there is some logic to a form of knowing that does not just involve theory of mind.
As for my excuse for continually tapping away on this contraption, perhaps in order to truly know I am not my thoughts I must firstly think them all, and categorise them in writing, before letting them flow out into an ocean of collective consciousness where they will become indistinguishable from all the rest.
Here’s someone else’s thought. I found it on the wall under a railway bridge last week. It reminded me of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s quote
“Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”
Actually, that sea of thought I mentioned before, well, you’ll find it in ancient Greece. Read Greek philosophy and one might never suffer from the thought delusion again. Not only are you not your thoughts, your thoughts are not yours in the first place…
P.S. If you’ve got to the end of this particular log jam of thoughts and words, well done, it can’t have been easy.
Traveller with half a heart
Guarding an open mind
A purpose as a blessing
Ajudge, all of it
Everything, in time
Not outta, yet
An energy, particle, a vibration
Or a wave
The barrier, a door
The ebb and flow
The moon falls out of the sky
A writer, the reader
The grit, but no pearl
The cat and the mouse
The singer, a ligger
That’s the statistic in the news this morning; the rise having been measured over the last 4 years.
There are various factors attributed to the increase: the downturn in the economy leading to unemployment and financial difficulties, the improvement of diagnosis, and the lessening of stigma around depression leading more people to ask for help from their GP. And none of that could be logically naysayed.
It’s my *belief however that although these factors no doubt contribute to the increase in prescriptions for drugs that act on our brain chemistry, it is also an indication that we are a society in crisis. I think we have literally lost ourselves amongst all the public selves we construct relative to others public selves, and have constructed for us by the market, education, politicians.
Yesterday I met a girl. I would say, and I have no medical qualification to say this but I have and do work in mental health settings, she is showing some signs of depression. The outward trigger was apparently a lack of money, but on further discussion with her it transpired the lack of money had led not just to practical problems, but was linked to self esteem. And the low self esteem issue, partly engendered or reinforced by lack of money, was compounded by the person’s comparison to others in her circle with more money. And the money represented spending power to create a picture the person has painted in their head about about an imminent life event. That picture is partly generated internally, but it is also linked to and informed by the pervasive images that surround us about how things should look. So we can talk about how humans need to be, but that message is lost because people have been utterly seduced by things and looks. Are we losing sight of our inner selves in the shadow of a manufactured public self which society and the market has shaped and has a vested interest in medicating so that wider society can avoid having to change?
Consumerism has created consumers and the distress that is engendered when they cannot maintain previous levels of consumption is very real.
The sad part of it is that most consumption is entirely ephemeral. No-one asks their lives to be measured at the end in terms of the flat screen tvs, flash motors, or designer clothes they enjoyed. We are being made ill, to some extent, by an illusion and that needs to change but it won’t unless people want it to. And you can bet that the market doesn’t want that at all.
And of course, it’s all good news for the drug companies.
*My bias is this: I have been depressed on various anti-depressants in the past, and I have been depressed without them. No doubt I will be depressed again at some time or another because that is the human condition. I definitely prefer the latter for myself now, but recognise that sometimes, for some people, the drugs do work, so this is not an anti-anti-depressant post…
“We do not make ourselves, and however weak we are we have to put up with ourselves; the burden is not of our choosing. Not only have we to bear the burden of our real selves, we have to bear that of our acquired selves, and that is the heaviest burden of all.” The Bending of the Bough, George Moore.
Occasionally words and phrases lodge in my mind, some remain mainly dormant sometimes returning at apt moments like song lyrics, others germinate and start to take on a life of their own. The above quote about acquired selves was the latter. It seems to me that it is in one’s middle life that you are most burdened with acquired selves: a work self, a parenting self, a friend self, a physical self and an inner self. Of course you are the same person, but each demand made on you, I believe, involves a little adjustment and re-framing of self. Perhaps when we move into an older age we can release some of these selves…
Although I love the imagery of acquired selves, I see it in my own context more as a constant inner shifting like the colours in a kaleidescope:
sharp little pieces of coloured glass, reflected on and not always entirely comfortable with themselves.
This Norman MacCaig poem deals with the concept I am floundering in in the tightest and most evocative way. For more on the poet there is a programme I need to watch again here
Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.
A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky
A swallow falls and, flickering through
The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.
I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me –
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.
Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.