The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 15, 2002

Signs & Signatures
Paradox of the modern self
Darshan Singh Maini

THOUGH the self has always been a radical force in human history, its high place in the calendar of values today is a relatively recent phenomenon. The drama of its dialectic is best understood if we consider the operative energies which have at once released its poetry and its pathos in our times. Such, then, is the paradox of the modern self. It’s a force for our multiple freedoms — in the fields of art, literature, education, sex, feminist concerns, human rights etc, — as also an agency that has been grievously misused to undermine classical continuities and cultures. With consumerism and populism as our new deities, it’s not difficult to see how the freedoms have turned into appetite and licence and diminished the quality of life even in the midst of material gains and comforts. Similarly, the aggrandising self has played havoc in the policy of the developing countries in particular. Even the elected rulers are prone to monstrous excesses, and hoist the self as a sovereign authority unanswerable to any legal or civilised norm.

I suppose one thing needs to be said at the start to avoid confusion in the ensuing argument. It’s not my contention that the self is under siege more today than ever before, or that the past with its simplicities and adjustments offered a better life. That, as history tells us, is a romantic illusion, and the nostalgia in that regard is a misplaced sentiment. The point to note is that the enfranchisement of the human spirit and the apotheosis of the self in our times have not been an unmixed blessing. What’s really distressing in this development is the kind of vulgarity and brashness we see all around, particularly in the fields of sex, politics, entertainment, governance and public life in India today. How, then, to keep one’s self true to its ‘salt’, or to preserve its nuclear and visionary intensities in a world of expanding horizons and diminishing values is, really the question that ought to engage the imagination of protest and indignation. The self is, in a manner, hard to define, for its use in the English language for centuries has given the expression a certain ambiguity, if not a certain complexity. Even its etymology is somewhat unhelpful in that this archaic word from Old Norse and High German returns us, philosophically, to the concepts of the ego in general. And if in its original connotation, it means ‘the same’, ‘the very’, obviously, the metaphysics of the self in this sense is close enough to the Vedantic concept. It is a person’s consciousness of his or her own identity as something unique and inviolate. In sum, the self is a circular entity, always in attendance in the daily traffic of life, and always returning to itself for energy, direction and control.


This, to be sure, is not the place for even the barest summary of the views and theories of the self in Western and Oriental philosophies. I’ll, therefore, be content to touch upon some of these in passing. To begin with, it’s almost universally accepted that the self — a God-given thing, or a Darwinian product, if you like — is inevitably shaped by environment, heredity and history. Its purity is only notional, though it’s this kind of self which courts suffering and tragedy in obedience to its inner imperatives. One’s self is, at once, a product of one’s genes and one’s memes (i.e. cultural perceptions and paradigms that inhere in the racial unconscious like Chomsky’s linguistic structures). In other words, one’s self cannot be entirely separated from the societal self whose pressures continually compel it to seek accommodations. Its ‘freedom’, so to speak, is within that ‘necessity’, as the Marxists believe.

Again, the phenomenologists tend to think that man creates his own self since he absorbs reality through his sense and responds accordingly. While this is true in its own way, it seems to ignore the fact that one’s senses and one’s reality, too, are conditioned. The biological inheritance and the cultural freight can, in no way, be ignored, or jettisoned. In one of his essays on the self, William James emphasises the double nature of the concept — a person’s role as the observer and the observed. And he goes on to define it in three ways — the material self, the social self, the spiritual self. What’s more, the self puts on various kinds of masks in varying situations in order to meet the assault of reality. Similarly, Elizabeth B. Hurlock in a recent study traces the growth of the self through four stages — the basic, the transitory, the social and the ideal. And in this context, I’m reminded of ‘the persistent self’, a phrase used by George Eliot in her great novel, Middlemarch, to describe that indestructible core within one’s character which seeks to remain whole and inviolate. And yet as Mihaly Ceikezentmihaly points out in The Evolving Self, the self keeps mending its perceptions and ways, even in the midst of tragedies and turmoils, seeking transcendence. And now to the concept of authenticity.

In his Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1969-70, the celebrated American critic, Lionel Trilling, went into the history, psychology and sociology of the self, particularly in Western literature, to show its evolution. The volume carrying these lectures, Sincerity and Authenticity, shows how the principle of sincerity yielded place to the principle of authenticity as cultural conflicts forced the Western writer to face the problematics of Hegel’s ‘honest soul’ and ‘disintegrated consciousness’. The need for authenticity in an essentially false and hypocritical society then becomes a requirement of the alienated but roused self. And the artist or the writer is obliged to invent a person to be true to his true and ‘persistent’ self. I had the pleasure of attending the Norton Lecturers as a Fulbright Professor at Harvard that year, and of discussing the subject with Trilling in relation to the fiction of Henry James. I trust, an insightful comment by Irving Howe sums up beautifully the whole argument as I see it. Reviewing Trilling’s book, he wrote thus: "Sincerity implies a living up to, authenticity a getting down into. Sincerity is a social value.... authenticity is an assertion, a defiance, a claim to cut away the falsities of culture — It takes two to be sincere, only one to be authentic (italics mine)." In his earlier book, The Opposing Self, too, Trilling had spoken of "the high authority of the self in its quarrel with its society and its culture".

I have not tried to catalogue the sins of our elders and betters in India (which, in fact, promoted this piece) — the stink of corruption in high places, the dirt in politics, the dishonest use of religion and caste as a weapon to acquire power, the phoniness and mimicry of our social life etc., — for all such things are too well-known to need comment or illustration. What needs to be highlighted, therefore, is ‘the expense of spirit’ in ‘the wastes’ of public life and politics amongst those called upon to create a new, healthy and prosperous India. In the end, the rulers acquire a sickness of the spirit, a false self, and begin to live in a web of delusions and self-deceptions. And the intelligentsia and the ideologues supporting the establishment, in their turn, erect a hierarchy of half-truths which serves as a substitute for a humanistic and holistic perspective.

Politics perhaps more than any other field of human life tends to lead men and women into moral blackholes, and the obliging intellectuals into a minefield of moral compromises. It’s only when they "wither into the truth", to recall a Yeatsian phrase, that they can hope to recover something of the authenticity of the self.