Many of the courses I’ve been taking this semester have left me asking myself questions outside of class, which is great—I’m learning! I’m being inquisitive and curious!—except that they’re unanswerable.
The one that’s been taking up the largest portion of my headspace recently is the one in the title: Who are we? By that I mean, is there any part of ourselves that is truly permanent? What is it that forms the base of our identities?
Okay, so there’s actually a few questions taking up my headspace. But let me explain how they got there.
One of those great, thought-provoking courses I’m taking right now is Experimental Women Writers. We just finished reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (a cool book straddling the line between criticism and memoir), in which the author invokes the image of the Argo, a ship replaced piece by piece until none of the original components remain, but keeps the same name. People are a lot like that—our cells are constantly replaced piece by piece, yet we retain more or less the same shape and keep our names.
But you would think that we keep something more than our names, right? There must be something that occupies all of those cells and maintains coherence—a soul, perhaps, that keeps ownership of the body, like Argus owns the Argo. But if you were like me (and a relatively large group of people who may sigh heavily when they read this), you would be taking a course about Proust (cue heavy sighs), and you would doubt the existence of a permanent internal self.
At least, that’s how I’ve been interpreting the words of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past—when not even names are permanent, is it really that surprising to have an existential crisis?). (Hopefully) Without giving anything away, the narrator notes that people change over time. Sometimes, he describes them completely different people, and sometimes he describes them as people momentarily deviating from their true selves (and thus ends the part of this post that carries the vague possibility of spoilers). Which is it? Do we change into new people, completely cut off from our past selves, or do we maintain a baseline or core self that remains unalterable while our more superficial selves change around it?
I’m inclined to think that the former may be true. I feel confident that I speak for more than just myself when I say I don’t resemble myself as a child anymore. Sometimes, I look back on something I did last week and can’t understand my own motivation for it. To allow a Proustian influence to seep in (cue more heavy sighs), I change into a new person every time someone else observes me. No one understands other people completely, and we’re all guilty of attributing motivations to others’ actions that may have nothing to do with what they’re actually thinking. We only get glimpses of other people, and create identities for them that are likely not in line with the identities they’ve built for themselves. With time and perspective constantly changing, I find it hard to argue that we don’t constantly change as well. It may be impossible for any of us to claim that at any one moment we “are” anything, let alone that we maintain that identity over any length of time.
Yet I’m also inclined to believe that there is some sort of consistence in our identities as well. Our names still apply to us because they refer to something inherent and identifiable about ourselves, right? Something must carry over from the past that allows us to hold ourselves together under a coherent identity. Maybe we are completely different from our childhood selves, but maybe that change occurred over a series of replacements, like the Argo, so each of our identities form a chain linking our past selves to our present selves (and maybe that doesn’t make any sense). It often seems like we must have a true self, otherwise how would we be able to answer the question when asked to describe ourselves?
So again, I ask, who are we? Is there anything constant about us?
I don’t think I can answer those questions, even about myself. Maybe these questions don’t have answers; maybe the answer isn’t important. Regardless, I’ll borrow some words* from Maggie Nelson and say, “There is something profound here, which I will but draw a circle around for you to ponder.”
So, ponder away, dear reader, and if you come to any conclusions let me (whoever she is) know.
*I’ll dive into the wormhole of who owns ideas some other time.