So if selfhood implies individuality, or if our undeniable individuality justifies the sense of selfhood, then there is another mystery to be acknowledged: that this impulse to deny the reality, which is to say the value, of the human self should still persist and flourish among us. Where slavery and other forms of extreme exploitation of human labor have been general, moral convenience would account for much of it, no doubt. Where population groups are seen as enemies or even as burdens, certain nefarious traits are attributed to them as a whole that are taken to override the qualities of individual members. Again, moral convenience could account for this. Both cases illustrate the association of the denial of selfhood with the devaluation of the human person. This would seem too obvious to be said, if it were not true that the denial of selfhood, which is, we are told, authorized by the methods of neuroscience and by the intentionally generalized reports it offers of the profoundly intricate workings of the brain, persists and flourishes.
There are so many works of the mind, so much humanity, that to disburden ourselves of our selves is an understandable temptation. Open a book and a voice speaks. A world, more or less alien or welcoming, emerges to enrich a reader’s store of hypotheses about how life is to be understood. As with scientific hypotheses, even failure is meaningful, a test of the boundaries of credibility. So many voices, so many worlds, we can weary of them. If there were only one human query to be heard in the universe, and it was only the sort of thing we were always inclined to wonder about—“Where did all this come from?” or “Why could we never refrain from war?”—we would hear in it a beauty that would overwhelm us. So frail a sound, so brave, so deeply inflected by the burden of thought, that we would ask, “Whose voice is this?” We would feel a barely tolerable loneliness, hers and ours. And if there were another hearer, not one of us, how starkly that hearer would apprehend what we are and were.
Marilynne Robinson. Please read this beautiful essay, and read it with patient attention. It folds and unfolds like the most precise and elegant origami creature. The question “Whose voice is this?” is a clear and lovely echo of Wallace Stevens’s great “The Idea of Order at Key West,” — “Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew / It was the spirit that we sought and knew / That we should ask this often as she sang” — a poem which should, ideally, be read in tandem with this essay.