writing a Life

Over at the Hog Blog, I’ve written about Herman Hesse — more specifically, about a passage from The Glass Bead Game, his novel about an archipelago of quasi-monastic institutions of learning: 

When a member of the Castalian community completes his formal schooling, he (and yes, it’s always “he”) becomes free to pursue any course of study that he desires to pursue. Only one requirement is imposed upon him: Each year he must write a Life.

A what? A Life — an autobiography, and yet not an autobiography. The scholar must write a narrative of his life as it would have been if he had been born in another time and place. Some of the Castalian scholars enter into this task with great verve, deciding, for instance, that a Life of oneself as a medieval Dominican requires a composition in scholastic Latin. Some of the scholars who wrote such lives were led, in the end, to a belief in reincarnation — surely they had indeed lived the Life they had just written. But these were in the minority. For most “it was an exercise, a game for the imaginative faculties.” […]

The question I want to ask is simply this: Is the writing of a Life a game that, in our current moment, can be played? Hesse described each imagined Life as an “entelechy,” that is, the realization of a potential — but perhaps that assumes something like the pre-existence of souls, an Identity that somehow exists before it is embodied in, realized in, a particular culture, a particular gender, a particular ethnicity. In other words, it may be that the very concept of writing a life presupposes a humanism, an idea of the human spirit that precedes any particular embedding. Can we, dare we, think this? 

I think belief in the social construction of the self is like denial of free will: these are positions that a skilled disputant can make a strong case for, but they remain outside the scope of lived experience. As Cardinal Newman might say, I may give nominal assent to the claim that my very self is wholly constructed by my social environment or that my every thought and act is determined, but I cannot give real assent to either claim. 

But if you try — well, then, you absolve yourself from multiple human responsibilities. If you hold your actions to be predetermined, then you will never repent, and if you never repent you will never amend your life. And if you believe that your identity is wholly socially constructed, then you are unlikely be curious about, much less empathetic towards, those whose lives are constructed otherwise than yours. Their story is not and cannot be your story. 

Of course, that selves are wholly social constructed is not a universally held view. As I note in the essay, our society is at the moment very confused about such matters: in general, educated people tend to think that even if race is a social construct the effects of one’s race are fundamental and unchangeable, while sex is (or in theory ought to be) infinitely malleable, but there is disagreement on both points and almost no one knows why they believe what they believe. The writing of a Life would make for a fascinating exercise in testing the limits of a belief in social construction and of a belief in total self-fashioning. I think I might write one myself.

Relatedly, I think, this powerful meditation from my friend MBD:

If people have an unmet desire for recognition, they can call attention to themselves by calling attention to their suffering. The thoughtless words, innocently ignorant slights, and verbal miscues of bystanders are reframed as a pervasive tyranny of micro-aggressions and mini-oppressions fraught with political meaning. This is the external crucible out of which identities are formed.

But as with so much else, I can’t help but see that the existential longing to become what you were meant to be, to somehow turn the sufferings you have endured into a transformative and liberating moment, is fundamentally religious. The experience of becoming what you were meant to be can only be a delusion in a materialist existence. It is the longing to discover Providence at work in one’s life, which is also the desire to discover a purpose that is given to you as a gift, but which has meaning and intelligibility in an objective universe. You find freedom in your predestined purpose precisely because the universe seems to open up to you when you discover it, fresh with new meaning, and deeper joys.

Identity politics the way we have them are the result of men and women who have been baptized into Christian longings, but who have been given only the intellectual and political tools of Whigs and Marxists for dealing with them. If political tyranny issues forth, it will only be an external reflection of the interior tyranny of lost souls, who are trying to get water to gush forth from a stone, even as they disclaim belief in the miraculous.