Who Am I?
26 July 2012
Kathleen is in Maine, enjoying her annual reunion with fellow camp-counselors. I am trying to get to bed earlier. Last night was not the success I envisioned. It wasn’t until half-past eleven that I turned out the light. I blame Fossil Darling (naturally). It was his birthday yesterday, so I took him and Ray Soleil out to lunch. You could see where that was going right from the start, but, happily, the only harm done was to Ray’s duff, because he was held prisoner at the flat watching almost all of the Miranda episodes. Well, he would laugh. “You’re right,” he said at one point, “the show does build.” By the time he couldn’t take any more, it was eight o’clock. I straightened up and made myself some dinner, which I ate while watching In the Loop, about which more anon. Halfway through the movie, I put it on pause, cleaned up the dinner things and got ready for bed. I did not wobble about watching another DVD. I settled down with the New York Review of Books for a while, and then traded that in for the more surely soporific The Last Enchantments, a novel by Robert Liddell, about which I-don’t-know-what anon.
I woke at seven, and was rewarded for not getting out of bed by an unpleasant dream. I went across the street for breakfast, which meant getting dressed first. Back at home, I set Bach in Order III to playing (with an idea that I will at least be ready for bed when it ends, sometime before nine this evening), and sat down to deal with the question that started bugging me yesterday morning, long before lunch, as I was walking to the dermatologist’s office for another little excision, feeling every minute of my age, which is almost eighteen months junior to Fossil’s.
I put it in adolescent terms at the header, but the question that I’m really asking is, who have I become? Because, first and foremost, I feel that the becoming part of my life is over. There will be refinements, I’ve no doubt, and I may have to change my mind on a few issues because, having thought them through more clearly, I realize that my earlier position was unconsidered. But so long as my mind holds its somatic integrity, I will remain the person I am today, and have been for some time. But who is this person? To put it another way, assume that you have been following this Web log for a long time. How surprised would you be to meet the writer? What assumptions would you have drawn, from the things that I say, about the way in which I think? How does what I write fail to disclose how I live?
Since there is no way for you to answer that question, I’m asking my version of it. For the moment, that means trying to figure out the question itself.
Philosophy — you ought to know that I have no use for systematic philosophy. I do not believe that there is anything to be learned about the world from mental constructs. Mental constructs serve the purpose of organizing what you know, or think you know. They can’t tell you anything that you don’t know — except, arguably, about yourself.
The exact sciences have taken over the old business of philosophy, which engendered them all, after having been raped (resisting all the way) by mensural rigor in the Sixteenth Century. I look to astronomy, not to Plato’s notions of essence, to tell me about the stars. And I look to cognitive science, not to Freud, to tell me about psychology. I do not look anywhere for morality or ethics: I come equipped with a handful of axioms that readily evaluate all of the choices that I face in my life. I don’t try to assess other people’s choices too much, since I rarely know enough to evaluate them.
Axioms: Violence against persons, except in self-defense, is wrong. (The death penalty is wrong.) Personal property is part of human dignity, but most possessions do not amount to “personal property.” The people around you benefit from your good behavior to the extent that it is generous. Self-righteousness and indignation are disfiguring states of mind. No principle is more important than any person.
Anti-axioms: There can be no axioms about lying. There can be no axioms about desire. Where these things are concerned, the axiomatic concepts of right and wrong are distractions. It’s the foreseeable consequences that are important. Theft is almost always a very bad idea; sexual infidelity somewhat less often so. What you don’t know won’t hurt you, but, once you’ve decided “not to know,” don’t go changing your mind. It’s for this reason that “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” turns out to be unnworkable when applied to health: at a certain point, you are going to be obliged to know. But then, it’s your health. You’re in charge of that, not your mother.
Rules of thumb: Life is never simple; better to accommodate the complications. Now this is something that, I find, works for me. It works for me in much the same way that sentences with dependent and independent clauses work for me. Another rule: don’t settle for guesswork or wobbly memories. Look things up!
Accidents: Although I have no personal use for athletics of any kind, I believe that team sports absorb the general and observable urge to partisanship (which I also do not share) more agreeably than, say, war. It’s only because I don’t know why I don’t care for sports that I call this an accident. Someone equipped to get to the neurological bottom of it might demonstrate that it was inevitability, my dislike of movement “for the fun of it.” But nobody is equipped for that yet, and it may well turn out to be genuinely accidental. (Memo to self: write page about how a completely determined universe is impossible, given the chaotic nature of state-change. Better know what I’m talking about, first.) Another accident is my personal reconciliation of the love of comfort with an attraction to formality. To people who aren’t drawn to formality, I must seem awfully rigid; whereas to truly formal people, I’m something of a slob.
Disapprovals: There is no reason for me to discuss the things that I disapprove of, unless of course they fall under one of the axiomatic bans. (And it is wrong-headed to say that one ”disapproves” of murder.) It is enough for other people to know that I can live without the things I’m living without with, whether or not disapproval enters into it. That is one of the good things about being old, and having put becoming and “discovery” behind one. One’s way of life becomes implicitly eloquent, to anyone paying attention. And anyone not paying attention quite clearly doesn’t want to know. So I keep my disapprovals to myself. Which is hardly to say that I make a secret of them!