November 2009

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In Search of the Self: A biographer issues a challenge

This is an abbreviated excerpt of Honorary Graduate, Prof Arnold Rampersad’s address to the Graduation Ceremony, Faculty of Humanities and Education, The UWI, St. Augustine, October 30, 2009.

I thought I would speak to you this morning about the central target of my work as a scholar-critic committed to biography and autobiography. That target has been what we call “the self" in each of my scholarly subjects—the essence of the life in question. “The self ” is a vexed term, but we know the word and some of its variations only too well: selfish, unselfish, selflessness, self-absorbed, self-reliant, self-hating, and so on. Is the “self ” the same as what we call the soul? How do we know when we have found it?

Biography has often aroused criticism as a way of getting to the self. In his Nobel Prize speech, V.S. Naipaul pitted the novelist Marcel Proust against the critic Sainte-Beuve, who believed, in Naipaul’s words, “that to understand a writer it was necessary to know as much as possible about the exterior man, the details of his life.” Not so, said Proust; Sainte-Beuve “ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us: that a book is a product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it.”

The so-called father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, also took biographers to task. “Biographical truth is not to be had,” he insisted. “Anyone turning biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery and even to hiding his own lack of understanding.” One might say that at least three selves seem to exist in any one person. First of all, there is the face one shows the world, often with an ingratiating grin. Next, we have a private self we reveal to our family. And then there is the self that one keeps largely hidden even from one’s family. This is the self we often think of as painfully misunderstood, a place unreachable by others.

Who do we think we are? Who do you think you are? So much depends on your answer! To what extent are you aware of some dangerous gaps that exist between the face you show the world and the face you show your family, and between those faces and the face that faces you when you look into a mirror? We achieve honor and integrity by trying to align these different selves or parts of the self. However, a completely harmonious alignment isn’t possible. It may not always be desirable. Here, what we call the self washes up against what Freud called the “ego” and then against what he called the “id,” the irrational world that artists, in particular, tap into in order to create inspired poetry or painting or music or acting.

We have an obligation to try to monitor these selves. This task entails a commitment to the famous maxim Socrates set down at his trial, just before his suicide, when he declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” “Know thyself ” was the command written above the portals of the temple at Delphi. But what are the basic parts of the self? When we say, sometimes defiantly, “That’s just who I am,” to what are we referring, or deferring? Each of these major parts can be both a source of strength and also a weakness. Perhaps the major parts of the self derive from our beliefs about the following factors: race or ethnicity; social class and/or money; gender—male, female, or in between; and religion. And there’s at least one other. This is the nagging desire for freedom from the chains of the preceding four. This last category has dominated the modern world, especially our younger people. If “Know Thyself ” was the motto of antiquity, as someone points out, we tend to want to follow Oscar Wilde’s alternative command: “Be Thyself!”

Sometimes we must embrace race and ethnicity as the key to our selfhood. In probably the lowest point in modern African American history, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of the dilemma of the black American, considered by some whites to be sub-human and forced to live in “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other [white] world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…. One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Du Bois went on: “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.”

Nevertheless, race-pride and ethnicity-pride can be double-edged swords. One cannot detach oneself from the greater world without losing something precious. As John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Those of us who centre ourselves in race pride should ask ourselves: “How does this pride affect the way we treat our spouse, or our children? What consolation is it to a neglected or suppressed wife, or an abused child, to know that her husband or his father is proud of his racial or ethnic origins? How is their hurt lessened?

The same might be said of those of us who try to fix our personal star, or sense of individual self, by the dollar; or by fondling the idea of having aristocratic ancestors (who perhaps never existed). As for gender, its emergence for women as a main pillar of selfhood certainly had been long overdue. But it, too, can cut both ways. The acclaimed modern American poet Sylvia Plath confided to her journal her belief that “being born a woman is my awful tragedy.” Plath, by the impact of her writings, reminds us that tragedy can be a redemptive force. But what did her literary success mean to her when, still a young woman, she killed herself? Or to the small children she left behind? Or to her son, who recently, after living what seemed a fulfilled life, also killed himself?

And then there is religion. Conscience driven by religious doctrine can make us aware of our faults or sins, to the greater glory of God; or it can simply make us better human beings. But autobiography, the search for the self by the self (as it were), is often seen as incompatible with true faith in God. What, after all, is the worth of the individual self when measured against the power of Allah or Jehovah or other deities? Autobiography is largely a Western enterprise, while all of our great religions came out of the East. A deep belief in God should in theory efface the self. And yet, are we prepared to sacrifice secular autobiography, a form that has been so important to the growth of civilization?

For this reason, among others, I am sharply reminded that this morning we are assembled on doubly hallowed ground. The first hallowing has to do with the near-sacred dedication of this university to the pursuit of learning for the betterment of humanity. The other hallowed element lies in the place-name “St. Augustine.” How fortuitous to speak about the need to search for the self in a place named after the man universally credited with being the father of modern autobiography, through his grand achievement many centuries ago in The Confessions of St. Augustine.

St. Augustine’s life story ends, to all intents and purposes, with his growth beyond a life of sin to his final surrender to God. Despite the fact that what he started as a religious enterprise evolved over the centuries into one mainly secular, he surely comforts those among you who find your deepest identity in God. “Seek for yourself, O man; search for your true self,” St. Augustine wrote. “He who seeks shall find himself in God.”

Whether you are religious or not, his core injunction rings with original power: “Search for your true self, O man.” This university has given you women and men a wonderful foundation on which to follow St. Augustine’s injunction as you build your future. I know you will do so with a sense of integrity worthy of this fine institution, and also do so with the joy that comes with a life honorably and richly lived.