Suicide And Our Many Personas

Over a decade ago, a friend of mine killed himself. As we, his many shocked and grieving friends, exchanged notes of commiseration and regret and nostalgic remembrance of a life we had all drawn pleasure from, one refrain made the rounds: “I guess I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did.” Indeed. None of us did. None of us know each other, our lovers and friends and parents and children, as well as we imagine we do. We have many, many personas; to ‘know’ someone is to have some measure of acquaintance–emotional, intellectual, physical–with some subset of these. These personas equip us to play the multiple roles we are required to play in the course of our daily lives; there is no one ‘real person’ lurking underneath all of these; the sum total–if such a concept can ever be meaningful–of these personas is, for better or worse, us. (As such, the most common complaint made against the online life, that we are not our ‘real selves’ online, that our ‘real selves’ emerges only in face to face encounters, makes little sense–for these supposedly authentic interactions, require the careful deployment of yet another persona, the one we use for social, in-the-flesh encounters. The immigrant, a master of many personalities, knows this all too well.)

A suicide reminds us, all too often, of this fact. (So does, on a much less tragic scale, the demise of a long-standing romantic relationship.) From the ‘outside’ we saw a life adorned with the usual indications of success or happiness, many of which we desire for ourselves and as such, may even envy; and then, abruptly, we receive the intimation that besides the personas we had been exposed to, there was yet another one that lurked alongside, not beneath, them, that of the suicidal person, the one determined to take their lives. Those external markers? Flags flown by one of the many personas that made up our friend; they are lowered to half-mast on other occasions, by other personas.

In the face of this fact, we often take recourse in claims like ‘mental illness can be so well hidden’ or ‘mental illness is a silent killer.’ But in point of fact, the suicidal person is more close to ‘normal’ than we want to believe. Many of us have entertained thoughts of wanting to bring everything to an end; some of us act on those impulses. The suicide is not a mystery; we would be more honest in our assessment of its supposed inexplicability if we would just ‘fess up the fact that you don’t have to be mentally ill to want to, or actually, kill yourself. You just have to be human, as perplexed as any of us about whether of any of this is worth it, about whether the effort required to move back and forth between our many personas can be sustained.

Many philosophers have held that a singular question that confronts a being like us–if we let it–is whether this life is worth living. Many of us, like us in all the relevant regards, take this question on, and answer it in their own way.

Perfect Strangers: Seeing And Hearing Ourselves

Here is a familiar phenomenon: we hear an audio recording of ourselves and are surprised and perplexed to find out we are listening to a stranger; we are used to hearing our voices from the ‘inside’; but when we hear a recording, we do so from the ‘outside.’ The timbre and tone of our voice is unfamiliar; we suddenly realize that the impact we imagine our words to have, the physical presence we think we command with our pronouncements, differs from that which we imagined it to be. Despite understanding the physics of this acoustic phenomena, it retains some of its mystery, continuing to imbue our daily conversations with an air of strangeness. A related phenomenon is finding out that you have an ‘accent’; soon after I arrived in the US some thirty years ago, I was informed of this fact, and it surprised me to no end. Where was it? I couldn’t hear it; I didn’t know what it was, even though I knew Americans spoke English in a manner quite distinct from mine.

But it is not just in the aural dimension that this perplexity arises: sometimes we observe a video recording of ourselves and find that we are strangers at home again. Our body language seems awkward, not as smooth as we hoped it be; our gestures not as practiced; our facial expressions seem to convey too much, too little; the emotions that we thought we were conveying are not the ones that are seemingly being transmitted by our bodies. As a teacher, used to ‘performing’ for ‘audiences’ of students, I am often disconcerted by my awareness of this gap in perceptions; I have never seen a video of myself teaching, though I have one of a conference presentation I made a few years ago; the viewing experience was, to put it mildly, jarring. I have never been able to view that twenty-minute video in its entirety; I switch it off after a few minutes, unable to reconcile myself to the presence of that stranger up on stage, pacing back and forth, his hands sometimes in his pocket, sometimes adjusting his eyeglasses, sometimes pointing at the projection screen.

We are used to being ‘misperceived’ because of language, of course; we write letters and essays and find ourselves unable to convey in untangled form the straight lines of the emotions and thoughts we entertain; we complain, voluminously, of how language renders us inarticulate; we seek refuge in terms like ‘ineffable’; some even invoke Nietzsche and say ‘whatever we have words for is already dead in our hearts; and so on. But we had imagined that there was at least one dimension in which we would be seen and heard clearly; and the audio and video recording tells us that even that comfort is denied us.

There is the ‘outside me,’ the one the world sees and hears, and there is the ‘inside me.’ We imagine ourselves to be physically ‘transparent,’ clearly visible to all, but we seem to always don a mask, one we cannot remove. We realize that our selves are personas, masks we use to navigate our way through this world, but we had imagined that was because we were selective in what we let ‘out’; but even that reminds us of the gap between what we sense from the ‘inside’ and what the world views from the ‘outside.’ Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.

Westworld’s ‘Analysis Mode’ For Humans

In the course of a discussion about the various motivations underlying the character Robert Ford‘s actions in HBO’s Westworld, a friend raised the following query:

In what senses would it be good, and in which bad, if human beings could put one another into ‘analysis mode’ like techs can do with hosts in the show? If analysis mode involved emotional detachment, earnest self-reflectiveness, and transparency, but not unconditional obedience.

As a reminder:

Analysis Mode is a state which hosts enter and leave on command…While in Character Mode, hosts seem unaware of what has transpired when they were in Analysis Mode….This mode is used by staff to maintain, adjust, and to diagnose problems with hosts. In this mode, hosts can answer questions and perform actions, but do not appear to initiate conversation or actions….While in Analysis Mode, hosts often do not appear to make eye contact, much like an autistic human, or it could be described as the eyes being unfocused like someone who is day dreaming. However, there are also numerous times when hosts in Analysis Mode do make eye contact with their interviewers.

One effect of the kind of ‘analysis mode’ imagined above would be that humans would be able to transition into a more ‘honest’ interactive state: they could request clarification and explanations of actions and statements from those they interact with; some of the inexplicable nature of our fellow humans could be clarified thus. This immediately suggests that: a) humans would not allow just anyone to place them in ‘analysis mode’ and b) there would be limits on the ‘level’ of analysis allowed. We rely on a great deal of masking in our interactions with others: rarely do we disclose our ‘true’ or ‘actual’ or ‘basic’ motives for an action; a great deal of artifice underwrites even our most ‘honest’ relationships. Indeed, it is not clear to me that such a capacity would permit our current social spaces to be constructed and maintained as they are; they rely for their current form on the ‘iceberg’ model–that which is visible serves to cover a far greater reservoir of the invisible. These considerations suggest that we might ask: Who would allow such access to themselves? Why would they do so? Under what circumstances? (Could you, for instance, just place an interlocutor, on the street, in the boardroom, into ‘analysis mode’?)

As might be obvious, what underwrites the suggestion above is the hope that underwrites various forms of psychotherapy, which, of course, is what ‘analysis mode’ sounds a lot like: that under persistent, guided, querying, we would make ourselves more transparent–to ourselves. Moreover, we could reduce the hurt and confusion which often results from our actions by ‘clarifying’ ourselves; by explaining why we did what we did. As the caveat about ‘unconditional obedience’ acknowledges, we generally do not allow therapeutic analysis to proceed in any direction, without limit (psychoanalysis puts this down to ‘unconscious resistance.’) The ‘bad’ here would be those usual results we imagine issuing from greater transparency: that our current relationships would not survive if we were really aware of each others’ motivations and desires.

‘Analysis mode’–understood in the way suggested above–would perhaps only be possible or desirable in a society comfortable with, and accustomed to, the greater access to each other that such interactions would produce.

On The Dissolution Of A Personal Boundary

One of my favorite pastimes when visiting my in-laws in Ohio is to borrow one of the family cars and head to the local cinema to catch a matinée show; it’s how I catch up on the big-screen action I miss out on here in the Big Apple. The tickets are cheaper; the audiences are quieter; and there are enthusiastic babysitters to be called upon. Thanks to these various facilitations, a couple of winters ago, I was able to view Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in its appropriate environment (i.e., not at home on a much smaller screen.)

I returned home just a tad deflated. Interstellar had been a dud: overly portentous, tedious at times, and much too enamored of its special effects. That was bad enough, but I had also noticed something peculiar about my viewing experience. A crucial component of my regular movie-watching at home had not been present: my regular partner in those adventures, my wife. I realized that built into my watching of a movie at home was her presence: when watching a scene on the screen, part of my reaction to it was caught up inextricably in a conscious and subconscious sensing of hers, whether horror, amusement, incredulity, and of course, sometimes, tears. (Sometimes my wife’s reactions are audible ones; sometimes, even as my eyes are exclusively trained on the screen, I find my thoughts turn to speculation about how she is responding to the same scene.)

That afternoon, as I had watched Interstellar alone, I found that my affective response to its offerings was curiously denuded; I felt as if they were lacking that part which was a sympathetic interaction with what would have been my wife’s responses to the movie. Somehow, over the years that my wife and I had been watching movies together, my responses to the movie-watching experience had started to include an interplay with hers. To watch a movie without my wife present was now to experience a peculiar sort of incompleteness in it. (There is also the small matter of how, once the movie was over, I was not able to engage in any kind of discussion with her about our respective takes on it.)

Such ‘boundary melting’ can be, depending on your perspective, frightening or exhilarating. Therapists ask us to be cognizant of the limits of our selves, to not let ourselves become subsumed in those of others; we worry incessantly about our ‘personal spaces;’ and of course, many couples are asked to ‘de-couple’ by counselors in an effort to get their personal relationships back on track. And yet, as the glories of truly rewarding sexual encounters remind us, the dissolution of our selves’ boundaries can be one of those rare moments during which non-mystics can have a quasi-religious experience.

A crucial aspect of the movie-watching experience at home was communication of a very particular kind, one that enriched my bare interaction with the director’s offering. That should be unsurprising, given that what we call our self arises precisely from a kind of inner communication within us.

Paul Valéry on the Indispensability of Avatars

Paul Valéry is quoted in Stephen Dunn‘s Walking Light (New York, Norton 1993) as saying:

I believe in all sincerity that if each man were not able to live a number of lives besides his own, he would not be able to live his own life.

Valéry’s stress on the sincerity of this claim for the necessity of multiple personalities and selves is required, obviously, in case our first response is to ask which one of his selves is speaking.¹ But with that out of the way, we can get down to inquiring into the grounds for such a pressing need: Why is this multiplicity desirable? Why disdain a coherent, unitary, integrated, self? Or at least, why imagine that to maintain the appearance of one life, one self–for that is all that appears to remain in Valery’s imagining–many others are needed and necessary?

Perhaps because Valéry has noticed, like many of us do, that to want to take on many lives, to imagine living them in all of their particular details, appears as an essential component of our days and nights, that the taking on and trying out, of a new self is an integral part of our appreciation of the arts, and indeed, of others. If we empathize, it is because we can imagine ourselves as another; if we gaze in wonder at a painting depicting the joy, or sorrow, or daily tedium of another, it is because our imaginative capacity has revealed itself in our taking on the beings of those depicted on the canvas in front of us; if we feel ourselves captivated by a novel’s characters it is because we have allowed ourselves to feel themselves in us, to become them while we read.

Perhaps it is also because Valéry notices the difficulty in maintaining a coherent narrative of the self through our past and present, when physical appearances are fleeting, where psychological change is almost as continuous as our external transformation, where the attenuation, modification and alteration of the face(s) we present to our daily circumstances is a never-ending task requiring much careful attention and customization. More importantly it is a task we revel in, not one we resent. If there is a stable self, it appears at best as a convenient, fictional foundation for all the performances staged on it.

So the Internet didn’t create avatars or make them more popular; it just gave them another space to be shown and displayed in. It wasn’t and isn’t any different from all the other spaces in which we put on our personas: the office, the bedroom, the playing field, the performing stage. It lets us pretty up the avatar-construction and the showing and telling, but the activities it facilitates are not considerably different from those that take place in physical spaces: the artful posturing, the careful selection of profiles, the self-regulated speech–a Twitter feed or a Facebook timeline with a ‘personality’ can often function just like a feigned accent, a dressing-up, a personality makeover.

From many one, or rather, to approximate one, many. To convey the appearance of a self, one must appear to have many.


1. As Adam Phillips does in Terrors and Experts pp. 81.

Bohm and Schrödringer on the World, the Self, and Wholeness

Sans comment, two physicists of yesteryear on matters that might be considered philosophical.

First, David Bohm on ‘the world’:

[T]he world cannot be analyzed correctly into distinct parts; instead, it must be regarded as an indivisible unit in which separate parts appear as valid approximations only in the classical [i.e., Newtonian] limit….Thus, at the quantum level of accuracy, an object does not have any ‘intrinsic’ properties (for instance, wave and particle) belonging to itself alone; instead, it shares all its properties mutually and indivisibly with the systems with which it interacts. Moreover, because a given object, such as an electron, interacts at different times with different systems that bring out different potentialities, it undergoes…continual transformation between the various forms (for instance, wave or particle form) in which it can manifest itself.

Although such fluidity and dependence of form on the environment have not been found, before the advent of quantum theory, at the level of elementary particles in physics, they are not uncommon…in fields, such as biology, which deal with complex systems. Thus, under suitable environmental conditions, a bacterium can develop into a spore stage, which is completely different in structure, and vice versa.

Next, Erwin Schrödringer on the relationship between the world and the self:

It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. But not in this sense–that you are a part, a piece, of an eternal, infinite being, as in Spinoza’s pantheism. For we should have the same baffling question: which part, which aspect are you? What, objectively, differentiates it from the others? No, but inconceivable it seems to ordinary reason, you–and all other conscious beings as such–are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense, the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance.


Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only one now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.

Note: Bohm quote from: David Bohm, Quantum Theory, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1958. pp. 161-62. Schrödringer quote from: Erwin Schrödringer, My View of the World, Cambridge University Press, 1964. pp. 21-22.