When I started teaching, a friend with more experience in the classroom told me about a study she had come across. I can’t tell if this study actually exists. I’ve never looked for it and it now seems to me to be one of those well-traveled anecdotes that has been passed down from hand to hand and accumulates more baggage along the way like blockchain. The study, she told me, found that students asked to rate their instructor five seconds after the first grade of the semester started gave more or less the same rating as they did at the end of the semester. The instructor, who was liked upon entering the room, was still liked three months later. The instructor, who seemed strict, hadn’t been able to change his mind.
Despite the implied fatalism, my friend claimed that she found the study’s conclusion comforting. Once you accepted that your character was instantly transparent, there was no more pressure to keep the bill up. If I was nervous about how I was doing during the semester, she advised me to remember that the students had already made up their minds. They found me out before I put my supplies on the desk the first day and nothing I could do would change it.
This is among the crazier pieces of advice I’ve received in my life. More than once, her words have popped into my head the first time I approached a lectern or shook hands with someone. What do others see so conclusively in these five seconds? It seemed to me to be a parable about the limits of self-knowledge. We spend our lives trying to figure out what kind of person we are, but others can understand us as a whole at a glance.
Our identity “is contained in everything we say and do,” writes Hannah Arendt in The human conditionbut we can’t see it for ourselves. “On the contrary, it is more than likely that the ‘who’ that appears to others so clearly and unmistakably remains hidden from the person himself, like that Daimon In the Greek religion, which accompanies everyone throughout their life, always looks over their shoulder from behind and is therefore only visible to those they meet. “
The Daimon– literally “fate” – was a guardian spirit randomly assigned to a person at birth. If you have been considered a blessed person, it is yours Daimon was believed to be good. If you were mean, cowardly, or angry, it was also your guiding spirit’s fault. I imagine them like gargoyles sitting on the shoulders of their assigned people (it is difficult for the English speaker not to think about the derivative demon). We cannot see our own Daimon, but we occasionally get glances. Most of us have heard ourselves described in terms that are fundamentally alien to our self-image. (“You are always so serious,” says the overly sincere friend.) Camus once described such moments as encounters with the absurd: “The stranger who meets us in certain seconds in the mirror, the familiar but alarming brother we meet on our own photos. “
Mirrors, photos, recordings – these technologies promise to reveal that Daimonto show us the self that others see. But how many of us can hold the evidence? About a year ago a well-known actor stormed out of a radio studio when a clip from one of his films was playing during the interview and he loathed the sound of his recorded voice so much. The story, which went viral for a day or two, could easily have been dismissed as just another case of male selfishness. Instead, everyone decided to forgive him in this occult way that online consensus merges. Mental health was a common defense. I think we recognized his disgust all too well.
There is no deeper alienation than alienation from one’s own voice, a longstanding synecdoche for the soul. More than once, after speaking in public, I have been told that my voice is “calming” or an adjective to that effect. Those who said it seriously believed, in my opinion, that they were paying a compliment, as if it wasn’t common knowledge that good speakers are first and foremost dynamic. The self I knew was sure of her ideals and enthusiastic about her beliefs. So how could my voice signal otherwise? But whenever I listened to recordings of myself, I could hear it: a flatness that was feathery around the edges. And despite trying to be more animated, I can’t seem to change it.
For the Greeks, character was fate. The order of the Delphic Oracle – “Know thyself” – was not an assignment to sound out the soul, but to accept the role that nature had assigned you, like an actor who takes on a role in the theater. It’s not the kind of advice you hear very often in modern America, but fatalism, as my friend noted, has its own convenience. When Virginia Woolf got jealous of hearing another writer praise, she didn’t rush up to her desk to try to do better. She walked across the swamp for hours and mumbled to herself, “I am me.”
Everyone believes they are the most important authority on their own soul. Philosophers have argued differently for millennia. Plotinus was the first to suggest that self-knowledge involves a strange self-duplication. If we can know ourselves, who does the knowledge? And what exactly is known? Schopenhauer called this predicament World knot, the “world knot,” a paradox that many modern philosophers have solved by eliminating the interior on a grand scale. The self is a bourgeois construct, a grammatical error, a software program that can be used to model potential actions and evaluate their survival payoffs.
It’s an annoying thought for anyone, especially those of us who feel the most when we’re alone. When I was younger, my self-esteem was most evident when I was excluded from the world and then disappeared when I was forced to interact with others. I have left every social event that haunts me Daimonwho always said things I didn’t mean, laughed at jokes I didn’t find funny, and contributed to gossip about people I didn’t mind. I always decided to stop doing better, but my actions seemed really obsessed, controlled by a biological autopilot that I couldn’t override.
If a soul only exists in private, can you say that it exists at all?
Like many people who become writers, I believed that the page offered a way out, a loophole in the world knot. Only there did the soul become flesh with work and reflection and I could speak in a voice that I recognized as my own. The self could actually be doubled into object and observer, person and author. Wasn’t that philosophically profound? Consciousness could be dismissed as an illusion, but words on paper cannot. And where did these words come from, if not from the self I alone knew best?
But I’m not that naive anymore. As you work with it, the language is fluid and sleek, and leads you to believe that it can hold the living, breathing soul. However, years later, go back to something you wrote and instead of your reflection you will find the gargoyle’s stone grimace. All of your vanities and delusions, everything you’ve been blind to – it’s all right for the world to see. As a writer friend put it: “I can of course say that I’m the one who wrote it, as I can tell my voice on recordings. But it’s not me. ”
Writing is no longer considered a technology, but it was also criticized in the early days for distorting a person’s image. The problem, Socrates complains to Plato Phaedrusis that consciousness dies the moment it hits the page. Ask the written words a question and they won’t answer. “They keep telling the same thing forever.”
What we want is to see the self objectively – not from a particular perspective, but from a perspective that is neutral, impartial, and eternal. That is why we invented God, the original view from nowhere, a consciousness that floats high in the ether, untouched by space and time, that is able to see the whole world Subspecies aeternitatis.
Today we would say “on scale”. Algorithms, like the gods of yesteryear, know us objectively because they see the world in petabytes, from heights we can’t even fathom, and because they only think in math that has no opinions (or so is believed). But what do they have to say about us? So little of it is revealing.
This product, the algorithms claim, was bought by “people like you”.
“Since you like dark indie comedies …”
The contemporary experience of the absurd: In order to see itself as the machines as a faceless member of a data set, the soul reduced itself to the crude language of the consumer categories. But arguing with predictive analytics is just as pointless as arguing with fate. The numbers don’t lie. I’ve seen these films.
We console ourselves with the belief that we can still control our digital image. The teenager creating his first profile must experience the same thrill I felt when he put the pen on its side: here is a medium – information! Form without substance!– –this can transmit and preserve the immaterial soul. But if she flips through her posts years later, won’t she also find that her self has solidified, that the idol has betrayed her? As soon as they leave the mind, words become part of the material, mechanical world: They say the same things over and over again.
Marshall McLuhan once pointed out that the myth of Narcissus is often misinterpreted. It is not love that makes young people stare at their image, but deep alienation. The point of the myth is that “men are instantly fascinated by any expansion of themselves in material other than themselves”. Stare at the objectified self for too long and you will become the dead matter you see. The alienation will eventually subside and you will begin to relate to that so completely Daimon that the inner self disappears.
Several years ago, during a season when I did a number of podcasts and radio appearances, I heard my real voice coming from the recordings instead of the voice in my head. The shift was crucial – it never shifted back. I can no longer remember my private voice, or rather I vaguely remember it, like the voice of a loved one who has died. The actor who stormed out of the studio tried to avoid this fate, clinging to his private image and closing his ears against all evidence to the contrary. How many celebrities have the same determination? You can only stand beside the public self, a steward of a statue, until the alienation becomes unbearable and you decide to inhabit the despicable monument. Guy de Maupassant ate lunch in a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower every day even though he didn’t like the food. It’s the only place in Paris where he doesn’t have to see it.
In college, I made friends with a woman I deeply admired and who possessed many of the qualities that I had always maligned in myself. They didn’t look like mistakes with her. She spoke softly but not shyly, methodically but not rigidly. When she showed up for class in mismatched clothes without brushing her hair, it wasn’t evidence of negligence, but a sign of how serious she was. I doubt I wore the same traits as her, but she changed the way I thought about her.
Aristotle taught that knowledge of oneself can be found through knowledge of the other. We understand what it means to be noble and honest because we see and admire these qualities in our friends. We realize that our own actions are horrible only when we see someone else doing the same. As one of his followers put it: “So if we want to see our own face, we see it by looking in a mirror. Similarly, if we want to get to know ourselves, we can do so by looking at a friend for a friend. Friend is, as we say, another self. “
The drama of self-knowledge is often portrayed as a war between subjective and objective, as an eternal tension between the first person and the omniscient third. We look for completely neutral reflection, listen to our souls in the echo of our communication channels. But a medium is a medium only when someone is on the other end. A blank page is no more a mirror than an algorithm. Consciousness can only be reflected from another consciousness.
Christ believed we saw faults in others to whom we have remained blind in ourselves: you criticize the splinter in your brother’s eye while ignoring the protocol in your own. But aren’t we more willing to forgive others for their mistakes than to forgive ourselves? A common tactic in therapy is asking the patient to console herself as if she were another person, in some cases a child. In this space of intersubjectivity it becomes possible to see yourself clearly and to experience compassion.
Simone Weil: “I’m also different from what I imagine. To know that this is forgiveness. “
If the writing process offers a glimmer of enlightenment, it comes from the effort to see yourself through the reader’s eyes, to sit in their place, and read your words as if they were someone else’s words. Writing is not a reflection of the self, but of its transmutation. The act requires the externalization of the mind content into a new form that can be seen and understood by someone else. There is no other way to self-knowledge.
Writer and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein argues that writing is an act of self-discovery, but one that requires two parties. “This very private, personal, special part of one’s own inner life has to be transformed in the course of its objectification into something that is receptive to mutual inflows from the inner life of the reader.”
I suppose that’s what I’m doing now – what I’ve been doing for most of my life: sending mine Daimon out into the world so that you can see it, so that I can too.
Meghan O’Gieblyn’s book God human animal machine will be published by Doubleday in August.