The Self As Prison

In his review of Charles Simic‘s The Lunatic: Poems and The Life of Images: Selected Prose Phillip Lopate makes note of Simic’s “cultivation of awe,” his “opening himself to chance, that favorite tactic of Surrealists” and makes note of this pronouncement:

Others pray to God; I pray to chance to show me the way out of this prison I call myself.

I have written here about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; one of the possibilities suggested by those difficulties is a terrifying species of realization, of self-discovery, perhaps the most terrifying possibility of all: that we want to change, but find that we cannot, and this knowledge of our inability to do so does not in turn bring about a corresponding diminution of the desire to change. (Hannah Arendt has written of the perennial “wish to escape the human condition;” we may also wish to escape our own personal version of that condition.) We are now locked in a hell of our own making, locked into an eternal ‘repetition compulsion,’ doomed to spend our days like a not-cheerful Sisyphus, one not reconciled to his fate. We wish to change; we find that the combination of this world’s arrangements and workings and our own capacities and inclinations and limitations do not permit such a change; we retreat, defeated time and again in our attempts to transcend ourselves.  We find failure and disgruntlement each time; but rather than accept defeat and ‘go home,’ we, unable to reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs, to the distance now revealed of a bridge too far, persist.

There is nothing noble or heroic about such persistence now; we are not possessed of an amor fati, we do not ‘own it’; we seek to distance ourselves from ourselves, but cannot. We are not reconciled to our being; we are tormented by ourselves, by the bars for this cage we have constructed on our own. Time on the couch does not help; we are urged to construct a narrative of our life that would make sense of the state we find ourselves in, and simultaneously suggest an onward path; we find ourselves unable to write this tale, to take the first step on a new road. And if we do, we find a familiar character populating that myth, we find familiar roadblocks. We are dogged, at every step, by ourselves.

Our ambitions, which almost always outstrip our abilities and capacities, may bring us to this pass; so might the ambition of others. This world’s orderings might suggest routes and journeys that are not for us to undertake. They require us to be not ourselves, and we cannot change.

This a terrifying state of affairs; all too many of us find ourselves in this state of being. Hell is here, on earth. It is not other people; as John Milton’s Satan had noted,

A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
What matter where, if I be still the same

Hell can be, and very often is, just us.


The Academic’s Peculiar Dissonance

The academic state of mind is distinguished, I think, by a peculiar kind of dissonance; the academic is able to entertain two conflicting states of being simultaneously; each informs the other and brings to it its peculiar intensity and torment.

At one end of its affective and emotional spectrum lies the well-known impostor syndrome: the academic worries that he or she is a fraud, unsuited to the rigorous demands of the profession that their life’s choices have brought them to; they are besides themselves with anxiety that one day they will be ‘found out’ or worse, that they will go through the rest of their lives living out this charade, one in which they have managed to somehow convince others–by a toxic combination of lies and artifice and outright dishonesty–that they are purveyors of knowledge, skilled and educated beyond the imaginings of most. They are shocked and surprised and intimidated by the blustering displays of knowledge that their fellow academics subject them to; they examine their own achievements and find them wanting in every dimension when compared with those of their colleagues and other contemporaries; they find that academic life, rather than providing for occasions in which their knowledge will be on display instead provides one forum after the other in which they find out just how much they don’t know; they enter a bookstore and retreat, intimidated by the talents on display; they are convinced their ability will never match up to all those who seem to effortlessly master domains of knowledge they themselves can only nibble at.

At the other end of the spectrum lies what I will call the ‘frustrated and unrecognized genius syndrome’: the academic is convinced that the world has failed to adequately recognize his unique and distinctive talents and knowledge, all the while paying obeisance and elevating to the highest reaches of their profession charlatans of all stripes. They look on with barely contained frustration and anger as accolades and recognition are funneled and channeled to those they consider unworthy; they consider themselves cheated by the vagaries of the fortunes of the academic world; their books and articles are unread, unremarked, uncited, falling stillborn from the press to be embalmed on the dusty shelves of libraries, while those of utter nincompoops are elevated to the status of icons; they look back on their intellectual careers and remark on its many contingent occurrences that could have, with a slight twist or two, catapulted them into those very zones whose air they yearn to breathe. They are always on the cusp of ‘making it’; but they never do; and they remain convinced that if only the chips had fallen in the right way, they would be where those they consider unworthy reside instead. Fate and fortune have been cruel; accursed is this world and its ways. A prophet is never recognized in his day and age.

This is an uncomfortable state of affairs at best; it afflicts students and professors alike. It infects the life of the mind with its own distinctive anxieties and neuroses; it may account for some of the depressing statistics pertaining to mental health in the profession.

Hug an academic today. Or not.

Thirty Years After: Reflections On Migration

Thirty years ago on this day, I migrated to the US. At New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, I boarded a British Airlines flight to London Heathrow from where I would board a connection to New York City, and set off. My mother and my best friend dropped me off at the airport; my grandmother had bought me a one-way ticket with her savings as a farewell gift. I ran to the gates; I was eager to leave, eager to move on to a new life. Thirty years later, in at least one measure, I haven’t gone too far; I’ve only moved from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Brooklyn in New York City; I’ve remained stuck on the East Coast, only able to make a short hop across the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York City–with a short, two-year stint in between in Sydney, Australia. But much–besides the progression of visas and residency permits from F-1 to H-1 to ‘green card’ to ‘US passport’–has changed.

Then, I was twenty; now, I’m fifty. Then, I was single, about to commence a graduate program in computer science and go on, hopefully, to a ‘respectable’ job. Now, I’m a husband and a father, a professor of philosophy at one of America’s largest urban public universities. Then, I would speak of a ‘home’ left behind; now, I can only write ‘home’ in scare quotes, even as I acknowledge that I have found one on this side of the world, one in which my daughter will grow up and find her way about, one whose well-being and future concerns me more than other places elsewhere; it is the place in the world to which I’m the most committed, emotionally and politically.

I’m a mongrel now; I sound funny to both Indians and Americans because my accent has morphed; both ‘sides’ have accused me, on occasion, of being insufficiently ‘genuine,’ of not being ‘the real thing’; immigrants can never be the McCoy; we will always be ‘outsiders’ no matter where we go; more than one group can tell us to ‘go back where we came from.’ Back in India, I feel like a tourist who can speak the local language really well; that land too has changed while I was ‘away.’ My in-laws live in the US; my daughter will find grandparents only here. She will know little of India and where ‘I came from’; she will not speak an Indian language. Children are always strangers to their parents (and vice-versa); the children of immigrants perhaps even more so.

In an essay I wrote recently, I made note of my aspiration at one time to be an ‘American immigrant’–it was a description that spoke of both success and a virtuous kind of work, one that elevated the very being of those who undertook it; it was how I understood the American immigrant experience from afar. Like all things observed from a distance, many of its most crucial features became visible on closer inspection; the life I was to undertake in the US would be considerably different from what I had imagined it to be. I was often found wanting; as was, it seemed, my home of choice. I considered myself prepared for this new life; I was not. But those shortfalls, those gaps, those mismeasures, they all added up to a new understanding of myself and this place. ‘America’ and ‘I’ both acquired new contours thanks to this encounter of ours. America acted on me, and I on it; it was bound to be an asymmetrical relationship; I changed more than America did in response to my presence here. But I like to think I’ve made this little patch of mine distinctive too, and brought to it my own peculiar and particular stamp, my own unique influence and signature.  My childhood in India colored my sense of time and space and still influences the way I see the world; but America, and its landscapes and light and air and skies have crept into my being too; they too, now, afford me the lenses with which I sense and experience the world.

In these three decades past, I learned, in America, all over again, that I was not and could not be, a self-made man; that I would always rely on the aid and succor provided by others. Sometimes they were other immigrants; sometimes they were Americans, of all stripes, kinds, and colors. They all helped me, all loaned a helping hand. Some loaned me money, others bought and cooked me meals, gave me a place to sleep, told me where to go, what to do, spoke up for me, taught me, loaned me books, read my writings–this list could go on. I’m not a self-made man; I’ve relied, unashamedly, on others, on friends, family, and strangers. An immigrant’s story can never just be about the immigrant; it must also be about all those who made that life possible. I’m glad that others have helped write the book of my life; and I’m glad that so much of it has been written in America, by Americans.

My political stance often casts me as hyper-critical; it is an anxious one, eager to make this land into a better one for my family and my friends and for the communities that have given me a home over the years in this land. My concerns for my former homeland are far more limited; my political ambit is circumscribed by my location and my available commitment; I have become an American by dint of where I live, and what I care about the most.

I have not stopped moving yet; I sense more displacement in my future. I am reconciled to it; it seems like a way of being. Indeed, I feel restless now, astir again. Migration induces a restlessness that will not cease; the initial inertia of our first home is never regained. I used to bemoan the lack of a resting place; now, I could not abide the absence of motion, possible or actual. Other migrations might lie yet in my future.

Old Battles, Still Waged: Accepting ‘Defeat’ In Self-Improvement

Over the past couple of days, I have engaged in a time-honored academic ritual: the cleaning of one’s office. Old books, journal articles, student papers and blue books, random handouts from academic talks, conference badges–all fodder for the recycling bin. But I went further, looking for especially archaic material; and I found it in my graduate school notebooks. Scribbled notes from graduate seminars filled their pages; but much else too. In their pockets I found syllabi and handouts; and on their back pages, many, many notes written to myself during the seminar class period.

Some of these notes are simple reminders to myself: submit forms, pick up checks, finish reading etc. Yet others are financial calculations; in graduate school, I always lived on the edge, and frequent checks of my financial health were necessary. These, as can be seen, often distracted me even as I thought about metaphysics and ethics. And then, perhaps most poignantly, I find little injunctions and plans for self-improvement: eat more of this, eat less of that, run more, workout regularly, reading and writing schedules, smoke less or quit; and on and on. Sometimes I offer exhortations or admonitions to myself. These blueprints for a new me occur with some regularity; they represent a recurring concern of mine.

Those concerns and the ways in which I negotiate with them persist.

I still make lists of plans, I still draw up schedules of work and abstinence; I’m still struggling. Now, you can find the blueprints I speak of in my hard drive, tucked away into files; I don’t scribble them anymore.  But I continue to obsess over how I can get over this weakness, this flaw, this thing that is ‘holding me back’; I continue to obsess over how I can ‘change’ and ‘improve’ and be ‘better.’ When I see my notebooks, I see that I’m fighting many of the same battles that I used to fight back then; against distraction, anxiety, lack of discipline in my personal habits, in my ‘work ethic.’ I used to dream of transcending these, of moving on; it seems like I still am. Perhaps battles that have been waged this long are indicators of persistent failure on my part, a depressing thought at the best of times.

I’ve often written on this blog about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; perhaps talk of ‘self-improvement’ is a sham, a distracting disturbance that does not allow us to become truly comfortable with, and accepting of, ourselves. Perhaps we have not reconciled ourselves to who we are. But perhaps that’s who I am, the kind of person who will always be obsessed with making these kinds of changes and ‘improvements,’ who will never make them, or never in the way that I want, but yet never accept ‘defeat’ or ‘get the hint.’ In that case, perhaps the best way for me to accept who I am, to ‘become who you are!‘ is to not disdain this activity of constantly plotting and scheming to escape myself. To engage in it is to be me.

V. S. Naipaul On The Supposed ‘Writing Personality’

In The Enigma of Arrival (Random House, New York, 1988, pp. 146-147) V. S. Naipaul writes:

It wasn’t only that I was unformed at the age of eighteen or had no idea what I was going to write about. It was that idea given me by my education–and by the more “cultural,” the nicest, part of that education–was that the writer was a person possessed of sensibility; that the writer was someone who recorded or displayed an inward development. So, in an unlikely way, the ideas of the aesthetic movement of the end of the nineteenth century and the ideas of Bloomsbury, ideas essentially bred out of empire, wealth and imperial security, had been transmitted to me in Trinidad. To be that kind of writer (as I interpreted it) I had to be false; I had to pretend to be other than I was, other than what a man of my background could be. Concealing this colonial-Hindu self below the writing personality, I did both my material and myself much damage….Because of my ideas about the writer, I took everything I saw for granted. I thought I knew it all already, like a bright student. I thought that as a writer I had only to find out what I had read about and already knew….It was nearly five years…before I could shed the fantasies given me by my abstract education. Nearly five years before, quite suddenly one day, when I was desperate for such an illumination, vision was granted me of what my material as a writer might be….I wrote very simply and very fast  of the simplest things in my memory. [paragraph breaks removed; link added]

Indeed. The confusion Naipaul speaks of is engendered by several factors here. There is, of course, some of the oldest misunderstandings of the creative process, with its suggestion that the ‘creator,’ the artist, either manufactures something out of thin air, or gives birth to that which already resides within them. But there is too, a suggestion that the writer steps into this world as writer, as finished product; but does not become one. Furthermore, because the writer is identified as an existent type, and because the exemplars available to the colonial subject would have been that of samples drawn from the colonial masters’ land–or those like it–the writer acquires a form, and his or her writings acquire their content. Now, all is clear: to be a writer one must write like one, one must write on what ‘writers’ write on; inauthenticity is the natural result of the mimicry forced upon, or readily taken on by, not the colonial subject. (Nostrums such as ‘to thine own self be true’ and ‘no man can give that which is not his’ instruct us similarly.) But others too imagine that the writer is a pre-formed type that must be instantiated. They would do better to think of the writer as something in the process of becoming over time, worked on by the labors of all those who write. By their form and content alike. Who knows what forms yet writers and writing might yet take, and what they might write on?

On Failing In Our Own Style

In Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 39) Julian Barnes writes:

But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure….

His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion.

We are reminded, in many walks of life, that it is not only winning that is important, we must lose, if such is our fate, with dignity too. This ‘American academic,’ whose biography of Edmund Gosse will almost certainly never be completed (perhaps because the weight of its own ambition drags it down and renders onward movement impossible), has found his own unique realization of that state of grace–a state not suffused with bitterness and resentment. Success is not imminent; failure is highly probable; better to not rage against the dying light if that rage were to result in further indignities being heaped upon an already bowed head, a knee already bent.  Cut the line; sink gently to the bottom.

A realization that many dreamed of projects–members of the dreaded ‘bucket list’–will not ever be made manifest is sometimes said to dawn in ‘middle age.’ (The scare quotes indicate that ‘middle age’ is not a precise chronological quantity.) Then, our bodies betray us with ever greater frequency, we realize–thanks to a clear remembrance of the past–that a pattern of behavior we have been trying desperately to modify has been an ever-present feature of our selves, and that new habits are increasingly harder to form. Self-improvement becomes intractable; we become tired of the role of Sisyphus we have been cast in. We had imagined for ourselves an endless and infinitely renewable plasticity; we had extended ourselves and pushed against the bounds of our being and capabilities; but we find familiar barriers blocking our path onwards and upwards.

Under such circumstances Ed Winterton’s strategy is an eminently respectable one–even if not beloved of those who compose inspirational quotations for calendars and internet memes. At some point, we cease the straining and start to find greater comfort in homilies that urge us to accept ourselves for who we are, to not live for the future, but for the present. These now appeal to our sensibility–a more ambitious version of which had scorned them in the past. Now they appear to speak to a truth previously unglimpsed.

The notion of ‘a correct and acceptable fashion’ for failure introduces a wrinkle of course. It is unclear whose standards of correctness and acceptability we are to follow as we decide to settle for failure. Surely, we cannot imitate and emulate other failures; they are failures after all. The ambiguity of such a description provides hope then for one last signature gesture. If we are to fail, then we must fail in our own distinctive style; we must choose its manner and time and mode of expression. (Remember the bit about unhappy families being unhappy in their own particular way.) If we cannot succeed, then let us not at least fail at failing.