The classic riposte to Descartes who boldly claimed he existed because of his thought was a tale wherein he entered a bar and ordered a martini. When the bartender asked if he wanted an olive in it Descartes waved his hand and muttered “I think not.” Whereupon he promptly vanished leaving behind not even a puff of smoke. Nevertheless, without Descartes’ thoughts he surely would not exist today.
But this problem persists in each of us at each moment of our existence throughout our lives. There is much we do not know about ourselves and many of us never find out. Some of these things are obvious to others and many are exceedingly subtle.
Kurt Vonnegut, for one, was very disturbed that he had never seen his asshole, a simple ignorance which possesses most of us. It’s a sure bet that many individuals who pontificate over life, fate, the nature of the universe, etc. are equally uninformed. Being practical, he solved the problem with an arrangement of mirrors and triumphantly displayed, in “Breakfast of Champions”, a rough sketch of his accomplishment. It was rather abstract and, like many other abstract pieces of art, was somewhat ambiguous. Not even one of his closest acquaintances would have recognized him from that. Aside from other things it could have been a Christmas star or an asterisk (pun accepted) or a moon crater or the winking eye of God. But I accept his designation.
Some years back an internist suspected some evil was working its way into my gut so he inflicted a gastroscope on my esophagus and while I was undergoing continuous gagging (I have no future as a sword swallower) let me peek at the view to distract me. No evil was discovered but I now know that my digestive system at either end or in the middle has nowhere the sensational possibility of even one of Janet Jackson’s nipples. So my self identity obviously lies elsewhere.
It is common for most people to identify with their names. This is usually a gift of our parents and very frequently conjured up on a whim so it rarely has much solid significance. Nevertheless, for most of us, it acquires such total attachment to our conceived essences that many people spend their lives scribbling it in the most surprising places in the conviction that we are thoroughly represented in the world. During WWII some character named Kilroy and thousands of accomplices scratched his name on all sorts of surfaces throughout the world but nevertheless his anonymity remains pretty much absolute.
It is customary in many modern situations for people to rename themselves. Hitler and Stalin and Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant did so and I doubt that they will be remembered under any other name. “Superman” in Finnish is Terasmies which means man of steel but pronounced in English is almost sounds like tear-ass man and he certainly does move around quickly. Most of the women of the world routinely rename themselves when they get married. My original family name had a peculiar arrangement of letters that were frequently misspelled which never bothered most of us but my brother objected. The rest of the family never took the name as anything but trivial and to make my brother happy chose a simple one easily spelled. Initially I never thought twice about it but the change occurred when I had gotten used to the old name at the age of twenty and it struck me, after the change, just how insignificant a name really is. I suddenly had to confront myself as an anonymous two legged mammal and I first found the experience rather unsettling. On the other hand it was liberating. Many of those things that a human being accepts as an integral part of his/her being suddenly became highlighted as external baggage that can be carried or put aside. Like any horse, rabbit, lobster or hummingbird I suddenly became a mobile lump of protein with a very individual existence and a limited lifespan (if I was lucky) of something in the area of a mere century. Whether or not my new name or my old name is recorded somewhere that more or less random accumulation of letters will convey nothing at all of this strange individual animal which seems to be me.
I say “seems to be me” because chopping off bits here and there still leaves me behind. Donating blood or having a haircut or cutting my fingernails still leaves “me” firmly intact. More radical butchery such as detaching arms and legs and an appendix removal still leaves behind the essential “me” but most probably spiced with rather strong emotions. With me, as with most humans, as opposed to chickens who occasionally can make out headless, decapitation does something final. So the essential “me” seems to inhabit the head and specifically, the brain.
For a while anatomists suspected that the essential self was deeply involved with the pineal gland but subsequent more sophisticated procedures with modern brain scans leaves the impression that the self is rather widely distributed throughout the entire structure of the brain.
Since sight, with me as with most humans, contributes hugely to the sense of existence I have the sense that I exist between my eyes and about three or four centimeters behind my forehead. It would seem to me that a person born blind might place themselves somewhere else in their body but I have no information on that. Perhaps dogs exist close to their noses.
But there is now no doubt that the self is one of the minor functions of the brain although not to the self itself who would not consider the important nervous functions of sneezing, coughing, digesting and farting more vital than itself. Nevertheless, Oliver Sacks who devotes himself to the strange effects of defective central nervous systems has clearly demonstrated that the seemingly stable “self” is subject to immense modification by nervous system problems as illustrated in his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”.
Although I, and no doubt many other men, have often harbored strange misconceptions about their wives, the hat business seems rather unique. And it follows that we also have been subject to misconceptions about ourselves. The ancient adage “know thyself” is a fairly impossible directive since, not only are there an almost infinite number of aspects to each individual but they keep changing from moment to moment so the act of knowing changes the target, somewhat like a psychological equivalent to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
So the problem is like that of a lepidopterist who mistakes a puff of smoke for a butterfly and attempts to pin it to a cardboard.
Who am I? Damfino.
All hard lines, strong shapes
Bright colors, make escapes
To leave remains behind closed lids.
Dark sparkles, vague circles, pyramids
And glaucus forms that shimmer, shake
To part and make the path to snake
In tempting curves that beckon in -
Into miasmas, rubbled trails, widdershin
In halls of bone where eyes, where touch,
Where sound and smell sum to not much
To orient direction. Palaces of psyche here
Erect their towers. Powers form and disappear.
We have arrived at the gates
Where mind mingles with the fates.
Threads of silver, threads of gold,
Threads of diamond strung to hold
Baskets of conception, full
Of dripping luscious fruits that pull
Forth visions ...blues and reds and greens,
Subtle shades, inbetweens
Encasing passions, joys and frights,
Sleepy loves, circus sights,
Twirling parasols and braying beasts,
Horrid things at nauseous feasts,
Dusty sawdust , acrid smells,
Crunchy berms of peanut shells.
Stacks of baskets packed with stones,
With crystal shapes, jagged bones,
Where shafts of light spear the air,
Ricochet in facet glare,
Speed away into sensation,
Pain diffused to adumbration,
Hints of chaos, hints of hell,
Cacophonic ringing bell
Tolling failure, soft confusion,
Flabby thoughts, odd illusion.
Sliding shapes, found or flat...
Not quite this, nor even that.
Susserations hiss the walls.
Spectral sounds, muffled calls
Echo in, echo out,
Boosting murmurs to a shout.
Away from sounds, around the bend,
Tentacles of stench extend
And split and subdivide
To where fragrances reside.
Filaments of succulence
Explode to flocculence
Which shock through inhibitions
To reminiscent exhibitions
Where shattered memories clatter to the floor.
Sludges of nostalgia to shuffle through, ignore.
The final destination disolves in fuzzy mist
For the locus of the self, a point, does not exist.
It=s thoroughly distributed,
The sum of all contributed.
A holographic spatter
Of activated matter
That cannot be dissected
From the meat where it=s erected.
So we tumble back out into the Sun
Not far from the point where we=ve begun.