A Philosophical, Political, and Literary Rendition
There is not a definite line that separates who man is and what makes him who he is. Rene Descartes’ famous saying “I think therefore I am” highlights the idea of the existence of the self as solely based on the ability to think and know. In his profound statement,“I” implies that there is a single, definite point that exists. This is a point in which no line, no external formations, can take away its value and stance as a point. Such is the self- although man’s nature lies in the effects of existential experiences, its core nature is resolute, for it is a creation of a higher, incomprehensible force. The modern dictionary definition of the term self is the evaluation by oneself of one’s worth as an individual in distinction from one’s interpersonal or social roles. In other words, self- identity is knowing the self without regards to external forces. This piece strives to argue with contextual support and evidence from a philosophical, political, and literary perspective that although past experiences of alienation, violence, and extenuating life circumstances may impact the formation identity, the true form of self is not bound and defined by these external conflicts. It strives to further explicate the points in these works in relation to understanding man’s inner world and elucidate how the difference between the self and other, whether in a positive or critical light, inadvertently result in dynamics that are manifested in human behavior.
In order to elaborate on the attributes of human nature, it is essential to explore the essence of the term self. John Locke, the philosopher and founder of the empirical method of psychology, defined the self as “that conscious thinking thing, whatever substance made up of (whether spiritual or material, simple or compound, it matters not), which is sensible or conscious of that pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends” (Arnett, 351). The manner in which the self is expressed is dependent on the functions of the mind. According to Thomas Hobbes, the founder of modern political philosophy, mental powers consist of two main aspects: cognitive and motive. The cognitive power gives imagery to external things, and thus remains after the object is removed. The motive power is dependent upon and involves the function of mental representation. This represents the extension of the ideas of Locke, who believed that there are no innate ideas, that the soul is like a piece of black and white paper, that all knowledge has its basis in experience, and that this may be external (taking the form of sensation), or internal as reflection (depending on the place of the object of knowledge, whether it belongs to the world of external sensible objects, or to the internal operations of the mind). These contemplations by Locke and Hobbes suggest that there is a relationship between the self, the mind, and experience. This is neatly summarized by the Oxford theorist Bosanquet in his 1898 work “Psychology of the Moral Self”: “The soul then…is our immediate experience…which we take as belonging to the past and future…[the soul] is not a ready made machine working on certain material, but a growth of material more like a process of crystallization, the material moulding itself according to its own affinities and cohesions” (Arnett, 355).
The dynamics of this relationship and the degree to which the self is expressed in interactions can be exemplified through political accounts of violence, victimization, sentiment, and the voicing of reactions. In her comprehensive study of Middle Eastern women and terrorism, Anne- Marie McManus questions why novels and studies originating in the United States and Europe sympathetically depict Middle Eastern women who commit or support forms of violence identified as terrorist. She draws on scholarship on novelistic and journalistic accounts of Palestinian female suicide bombers in order to cast a critical light on the representations of female terrorists as the tragic victims of men and circumstance; but more importantly, she reveals how emerging terrorism studies neglect to explore how such narratives invite the reader to sympathize with women who embrace the very forms of violence we are expected to oppose. McManus approaches this argument by making reference to the case of Wafa-Idris, the first suicide bomber in the Second Intifada. After giving birth to a stillborn child, undergoing depression, and facing divorce by her husband, she was, in the words of her mother, forever “ ‘tainted’: she was young intelligent and beautiful, and had nothing to live for’” (McManus, 89). Reading such sentimental narrative would elicit feelings of sympathy for Idris, “who loved life until she destroyed life- at which point the traits that established her feministic legibility transform into a sinister disguise” (McManus, 89). Idris was in a situation where humiliation and hopelessness in a culture of death contrasted with her neutralized desire to produce children in her war-torn environment. Though this piece does not aim for readers to pick a side, it evokes concerns caused by the intersection between “political and economic oppression” and the life of a woman as described as “a fatal cocktail”; thus, the woman’s distorted sense of self and the resulting act of terrorism is portrayed in a manner in which a third person, sitting across seas, would “establish a compassionate and apolitical form of concern for this conflict” (McManus, 90). Drawing away from the political lens of this suicide bomber, what was the core driving force of her behavior? It seems to be that complexity-the abundance of variables- distort the answer. What if she was not really infertile? What if she was unable to receive proper care from physicians due to the chaos and rampant poverty in Palestinian society?
Regardless of the explicit reason, the resulting behavior of this women was the result of the dysfunctional relationship between the external sensations and the internal reflection, as described above. In other words, her present self was molded by her past “affinities and cohesions”. In his book “Self and Other” Robert Rogers explains how “In similar defiance of common sense, aspects of the self may seem to reside within but may unconsciously be projected onto outside others…”. Wafa’s deep-rooted disgust for her life fueled her aversion for the outside world to such extent that terrorism was her means of propelling her internal reactions. Rogers later refers to the ideas of the intellectual Peterfreund who proposed that “‘All long term relationships- including mother and child, husband and wife, and patient-and-analyst relationships- can be profitably studied as feedback regulated, information processed systems’”(Rogers, 29). That is, if one is controlled and “victimized” by her own confining, all-consuming agony and lack of self-worth, then that is what will be displayed externally. The cycle of internal conflicts and external conflicts is driven by one’s lack of unison between the individual sense of self and reality. The issue of fantasy versus reality can be addressed by making reference to Freud’s conception of fantasy. He proposed that fantasy is “experience distorted by defences and wishes”. Freud’s conception of fantasy results in an “ontogenetic theory of experience as fantasy, not as experience as reality’” (Roger, 30).
The emotions resulting from a sense of groundedness versus alienation and its impact on the sense of self can be displayed in both Ntozake Shange’s poem “The Desert” and excerpts from Jamaica Kincaid’s novel “A Small Place”. In “The Desert”, Shange defines identity as “A psychic sense of place” (5). This implies her self-assuredness regardless of her place. She elaborates her sense of self- awareness as she incorporates in her poetry the desert as an extended metaphor :
but we are not the desert
we are part of the desert
and when we go home
we take with us that part of the desert that the desert gave us
but we’re still not the desert (23–28)
The desert symbolizes a place that is lonely, empty, vast, mysterious, dry, and barren. Without awareness of oneself, it is not possible to thrive, to know what one possesses, and to give. The irony of this metaphor lies in the idea that though this is a place where the lost may never be found, it is also a place where the silence and solitude induces the bare perception of existence; that is, the presence of the self in such territory allows one to find the self. And by finding the self, one realizes that a true sense of identity not only comes from the ability to differentiate what lies within and what lies on the outside, but also from allowing the self to remain unmoved when part of the surroundings. Kincaid’s “A Small Place” offers an opposing perspective- one in which alienation is present in corruption in both larger European colonizations and the small scale natives of Antigua. Whether in Antigua, where “[people] were forced to work under conditions that were cruel and inhuman, they were beaten, they were murdered, they were sold…” (Kincaid, 54) or in a more modernist European society where banality and corruption were not remotely close to the cruelty the natives endured, the novel portrays how human lives are universally fraught with injustice and complexity.
Understanding the meaning of self as distinct from interpersonal roles leads to a singular point much like multiple roads leading to one square. It does not change; rather it is influenced and made into something that seems definitive; but the self cannot be given a label. It is not the product of the past or present, the dehumanization, victimization, violence, or alienation; it is the voice that guides, a mystery, a part so essential but so neglected. It is the product of an infinite, incomprehensible force. It is an enigma forever to be searched for and forever to be longed for.
Arnett, L. D. “The Soul: A Study of Past and Present Beliefs.” 15.3 (1904): 347–82. Web. 4 July 2017
Kriegel, Leonard. “Tunnel Notes of new Yorker”. Beyond Borders: a Cultural Reader. Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin, 2003. 22–23. Print.
Mcmanus, Anne-Marie. “Sentimental Terror Narratives: Gendering Violence, Dividing Sympathy.” 9.2 (2013): 80–107. Web. 4 July 2017.
Rogers, Robert. “Toward a Unified Theory of Object Relations.” N.p.: NYU, 1991. 23–46.
Object Relations in Psychoanalysis and Literature. Web. 4 July 2017.
Smith, James. “Karagöz and Hacivat: Projections of Subversion and Conformance.” 21.2 (2004):187–93. Web. 12 July 2017.