Jean-Paul Sartre refused to eat lobsters because they resembled giant insects. Fresh fruit and vegetables, he felt, were also too…
I once had an introverted student who painted his fingernails black and doodled lines from Marilyn Manson songs in his notebooks. Colleagues were alarmed, the school chaplain was notified and his parents were called for an interview. There was grave concern for his wellbeing. The young man began blackening his lips and wearing mascara.
As his tutor it was my duty to help him (i.e. reorient his deviant meandering). I was confused. My heart wasn’t in telling him he was wrong. My own sense of self was too flimsy to fake certainty. So I listened to Marilyn Manson, read his autobiography Long Hard Road Out of Hell and found that beneath the dark, scary exterior, Manson was a man of substance. The student and I discussed Manson.
There was no sudden Damascus moment. I told his parents “he is bright, writes good essays, he is exploring his identity. Don’t worry!” Before he graduated, the young man thanked me for understanding. I’m not sure I did, or do, but I was not prepared to believe he was wrong. Identity is complex, constantly shifting and there are too many self-proclaimed experts in the field.
Descartes’ dictum cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) promoted reason as the foremost tool for self-discovery for over three centuries. I prefer to follow the dictum dubito ergo sum – I doubt, therefore I am – since it is uncertainty that drives me to define who I am. It is a language game. The question of being is not so much “who am I?” but “who is asking ‘who am I?’” While reading post-graduate literature a professor challenged my motives. He laughed at my desire for greater understanding. “Don’t you know?” he said, “all that ever happens is that you are elevated to a more sophisticated level of ignorance!” We think we are progressing in our chosen field, when we are only expanding the horizon of the unknown.
Identity only partially resides in our name, gender, work or bank balance. So, why are these not enough? Why do we excavate our being for more? To borrow from an eastern proverb, why do we try to bite our teeth with our teeth? Perhaps identity is not a category of being but an ever-changing position we take in relation to experience? It’s why we paint our fingernails black, shave our heads, tattoo and pierce our skin. We need to communicate ourselves but we do not have the words to do so. We feel ourselves intuitively in the world. From our emotions we approach a sense of ‘being’ in the world.
To transcribe those feelings into words is difficult; between being and explaining being there is an abyss. The art of the novel traces our efforts to speak from this void, with writers trying to utter our being into the world, to manifest the unspeakable soul. We experience life in this abyss and it is from here that philosophers try to bridge the gap, but language is an imperfect tool.