Identity is an absorbing human problem, one that seems to fascinate us now more than ever. In the 1950s, thirty-seven English language books were published with the term ‘identity’ in the title. In the 2010s the number had grown to 10,000.
Is humanity eight billion different identities or does it possess a single common identity? When does a human being obtain an identity? At conception, at birth, in infancy or adulthood? Are we simply a refined variety of animal, or a unique species of social and intellectual beings? Do we have a single identity that encompasses all of us? Or even one that persists over time within each one of us? Am I the same person that I was ten years ago, or indeed the same person today as I was yesterday? If I am what is it that enables me to say that I am? These are all interesting questions but few of them have answers that all could agree on.
Yet what links all these questions, what makes them more than merely fascinating, and far more important than the satisfaction of mere curiosity, is the power that identity has to influence and indeed transform the world that we inhabit. Achieving a consensus as to what is common in our identity has the capacity to solve problems as diverse as global warming, economic and social inequality, the rise of artificial intelligence, and why most of us use only a fraction of our store of human creativity to improve our own life chances and those of others. Identity is of more than merely academic interest. It is part of a nexus of ideas and projects which if pursued rationally have the power to transform our world.
We have had reason to begin our exploration of identity with selfhood and our sense of being selves. There is a wide and fascinating dialogue in English and European literature about self and selfhood, and I thought I would briefly explore just a few examples.
We might start with Aldous Huxley’s last novel Island (published in 1962). This is much less well known than his 1932 novel Brave New World. The latter of course is markedly dystopian, but Island is set in a Utopia, on the fictional Pacific island of Pala. Here the myna birds, instructed by the local inhabitants, regularly scream the word ‘attention’ to remind the inhabitants to focus on whatever they are doing at that instant. Pala’s citizens live only in and for the present and focus most of their energies on the containment of suffering and mitigation of the fear of death. They are also adept at administering a medicine that helps them to lose their sense of self, replacing it with a feeling of oneness found in everything that they encounter. But ultimately this utopia is a fragile entity in a world of competing and aggressive nations. As the novel ends the invading sea-borne forces of the enemy are closing in on the island.
Let us now move to Iris Murdoch (who once said in an interview that she had very little sense of self or of being a self). In her 1963 novel The Unicorn one of the principal characters, named Effingham Cooper, loses his way whilst walking through a marsh. As night falls, he is trapped, sinking slowly into the mud until he cannot move. He is not by nature given to introspection, but is now obliged to concentrate his attention on his imminent death:
'Why had Effingham never realized that this was the only fact that mattered, perhaps the only fact there was? If one realized this one would have lived all one’s life in the light. Yet, why in the light, and why did it seem now that the dark ball at which he was staring was full of light? Something had been withdrawn, had slipped away from him in the moment of his attention and that something was simply himself. Perhaps he was dead already, the darkening image of the self forever removed? Yet what was left, for something was surely left, something existed still? It came to him with the simplicity of a single sum. What was left was everything else, all that was not himself, that object which he had never before seen and upon which he now gazed with the passion of a lover. And indeed he could always have known this for the fact of death stretches the length of life. Since he was mortal he was nothing and since he was nothing all that was not himself was filled to the brim with being and it was from this that the light streamed. This then was love, to look and look until one exists no more, this was the love which was the same as death. He looked, and knew with a clarity that was one with the increasing light that with the death of the self the world becomes quite automatically the object of a perfect love.'
Iris Murdoch, The Unicorn, Penguin edition, 1966, p.167
Happily, Effingham is rescued. Unhappily, with his life spared, he completely forgets all about his insight on the marsh.
Murdoch greatly admired Virginia Woolf. In the first paragraph of Chapter Seven of To the Lighthouse Woolf sets out a compelling description of the disappearance of both self and subject:
‘And that was what now she often felt the need of- to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others…this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. And to everybody there was always this sense of unlimited resources, she supposed…The core of this darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability. Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience (she accomplished here something dexterous with her needles), but as a wedge of darkness…Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at…’
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, pp. 45-6, Wordsworth Editions, 1994
In her novel Night and Day Woolf explores how we only see an image, or representation, of other people. Sometimes it is the image that they project, and sometimes the image that we have constructed in our own minds. Even amongst lovers (or perhaps especially with them?) one sees what one wants to see, as if one were bending the image to suit the needs of our own self. In Night and Day Woolf describes how in true love this illusion is sometimes glimpsed but perhaps never really conquered.
Or in her later novel, The Waves:
‘This self now as I leant over the gate looking down over fields rolling in waves of colour beneath me made no answer. He threw up no opposition. He attempted no phrase. His fist did not form. I waited. I listened. Nothing came, nothing. I cried then with a sudden conviction of complete desertion. Now there is nothing. No fin breaks the waste of this immeasurable sea. Life has destroyed me. No echo comes when I speak, no varied words. This is more truly death than the death of friends, than the death of youth. I am the swathed figure in the hairdresser’s shop taking up only so much space.’
And then how this insight is often unstable, uncertain, and the habitual self returns:
‘But how describe the world seen without a self? There are no words. Blue, red- even they distract, even they hide with thickness instead of letting the light through. How describe or say anything in articulate words again?- save that it fades, save that it undergoes a gradual transformation, becomes even in the course of one short walk, habitual- this scene also. Blindness returns as one moves and one leaf repeats another. Loveliness returns as one looks, with all its train of phantom phrases. One breathes in and out substantial breath; down in the valley the train draws across the fields lop-eared with smoke.’
The Waves, Wordsworth Classics, 2000, pp.149, 160 and 162
In Luigi Pirandello’s last novel One, No One and One Hundred Thousand the author explores what it would be like for someone to lose their sense of being a self separate from those other millions of supposed selves. It is only in losing his sense of selfhood that the protagonist of this strange and entrancing story feels fully alive for the first time:
‘…you can only know yourself when you strike an attitude: a statue: not alive. When one is alive, one lives and does not see himself. To know one’s self is to die. The reason you spend so much time looking at yourself in the mirror, in all mirrors, is that you are not alive; you do not know how to live, you cannot or do not want to live. You want too much to know yourself; and meanwhile, you are not living.
'I no longer have any such need [to think of death], for the reason that I am dying every instant, and being born anew, and without memories: alive and whole, no longer in myself, but in everything outside.'
Luigi Pirandello- One, No One and One Hundred Thousand, pp. 247 and 268, translation by Samuel Putnam
Each of these quotations expresses something essential that I want to explore further in the posts to come, something encapsulated in Buddhist thought, but also in that of many diverse literatures, religions and cultures, namely that only when you lose your self, are you truly alive.