Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Self and Stories of the Self

One of the things I did not touch on here is the story Peter Rollins told about a Homes and Country article that ran around 1930 featuring the home of a rising European leader, vegetarian, and painter. He loved to entertain guests and gave cupcakes to children. The house was beautiful and well appointed, the painter talked in a cultured way about his paintings and about art. From the article one gets the sense that this man is a decent person. This person was Adolf Hitler.

He also tells this story here in this video:


Peter Rollins takes this to show that the story one tells about oneself is not one's true self. If I understand him correctly Rollins wants to say that such a narrative is a pseudo self, it is false. The stories we tell ourselves aren't true. At the Insurrection tour he unpacked this more than he does in the above video. We tell stories about ourselves that stand in place of our true self. We can be overcome these false stories through action: we can work at making sure the story we tell ourselves about our self matches our material conditions. We all know who Hitler ultimately was and he wasn't a nice guy, he was evil and the mastermind of genocide. Hitler was not the story told in the Homes and Garden article. Rollins says we are our material conditions and actions, not the stories we tell ourselves. But I don't know that the above example does the work Rollins wants it to do. Or rather it does as long as one simply accepts the story most of the world now tells about Hitler: that he was the the mastermind of a great genocide, an evil and unstable man, possibly the very incarnation of evil itself. This narrative we believe cannot be squared with a cultured gentle vegetarian painter, therefore that narrative must not be Hitler's true self. Yet this view of the self posits the self as simple and singular over which we can overlay complexity but that always views said complexity as always false. However, if as Rollins also posits we find the self in the material conditions and actions of our lives, then Hitler's house vegetarianism and paintings reveal the self of Hitler as much as what he did as Fuehrer of Nazi Germany. Now we may choose to judge that self claiming that one set of material conditions is more significant than the other, but based on Rollin's claims about the self we cannot dismiss his vegetarianism and painting and appointment of his house as false, since these are also material conditions and actions.

We may want to believe that the two things are incompatible, incommensurate and contradictory, but I posit we want to believe that because we don't want to believe that our own cultured narratives could overlap with this one we have judged as the incarnation of evil itself. The belief in a singular true narrative of the self means we have the hope of achieving our pure selves that will not overlap with certain others, whom we can then keep at a distance. This I don't think is what Rollins' is about but I think it is why this theory of the self has certain resonance, and why the example of Hitler lends itself so well to Rollins' thought. He is concerned that Christians have and accept narratives incommensurate with Christ, especially the moment of Christ on the cross feeling abandoned by God, and wants to encourage the sloughing off those incommensurate narratives but through appealing not merely to their incompatibility with the Christ narrative but by encouraging a search for the true and singular self.

What I'd like to posit as another view of this story about Hitler the vegetarian cultured painter who understood the good things of life and someone whom we think we could like, is that the self is multiple and not singular. I posit the possibility that we could have more than one narrative of the self (or more than one self,for it is difficult to disentangle a self from a narrative) and that we are unable to make them agree, this is the case Hitler presents us with: Two sets of material conditions and actions that lend themselves to two different narratives of Hitler and they don't seem to coincide in one self, but they are equally true. Such a multiple self is always already in danger of self-contradiction and thus dissolution. If there is a lie we tell ourselves it isn't our stories, which don't match up to our material reality, (most stories we tell ourselves do match up with at least some aspect of our material reality) rather the lie we tell ourselves is that the self is singular and indivisible. The self is multiple always in danger of disolution, but the solution to this is not Rollins singular true self.

In positing this I am interpreting Derrida on what we are encountering or can know about an author, and Derrida's own musing and playing with "Derrida" as interpreted by a friendly critic and Derrida as written in conversation with St Augustine's Confessions. From this I have concluded that the self is not reducible to a singularity, and from St Augustine I learn that we as those made in the image of God do reflect in our being who God is, and thus there is something of the Trinitarian life in our own life. God also is not reducible to an absolute singularity, but is a perfect unity of three persons. The Trinity tells us that multiplicity does not necessarily contradict a unity and oneness.

Admittedly this is itself an attempt to describe my own experience and to justify my own choices. The name of this blog brings together to disparate narratives of myself. What I do is to admit both that the narratives of myself are disparate and seek to make choices in those narratives that lead towards the coincidences of those narratives rather than the dispersion of myself in multiple and incommensurate narratives. Hitler is perhaps the example of one whose disparate narratives never found coincidence and so becomes a site destruction emptiness and death, the site of evil. This is perhaps the disturbing things about ourselves they tend toward this dissolution, being the site of evil. What will ultimately hold our narratives together isn't ourselves, isn't our effort towards singularity but openness to the Other, who is perfectly three and perfectly one, in whom we move and live and have our being.

In a conversation years ago, a Romanian artist and iconographer, Ion Ardelean once said in response to someone saying "I am among many things a guitarist". He said don't say that "rather say of the many things I am one of them is a guitarist." This has long stuck with me as a truly wise saying.