Thursday, November 1, 2018

"I know it's crazy"

I’ve been fighting to be who I am all my life. What’s the point of being who I am, if I can’t have the person who was worth all the fighting for?

That's by a writer named Stephanie Lennox in a novel called I Don’t Remember You. I haven't read the novel. I don't know that I will. Perhaps it has a different sense in context. That is possible but not likely. This is a sentiment that is often expressed nowadays. Is it unkind, or triggering, to point out that it makes no sense?

Actually, it's worse than nonsensical. "Trying to be who I really am," is a way of lying to herself about what is going on. She knows what she wants to do but that will have consequences and she wants to live in a world where choices don't have consequences. Having to accept that would hurt.

Craving some sort of self-created identity is something teenagers do. Salinger captured it nicely at the end of The Catcher in the Rye.
I thought it was, "If a body catch a body," Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and no ones around - nobody big I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of this crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they are going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know its crazy, but that the only thing I's really like to be. I know its crazy.” 
There's a lot you could unpack in that. He starts off by admitting he misheard the poem that is the inspiration for his imagined identity. He concludes with, "I know its crazy."* The question that is troubling him is, "What do you want to be?" The current version of that is, "What is your identity?" Lies are lived first and told second. There is a life lie, a contradiction in our desires we're scared to confront, underneath that told lie. We want our identity to be a choice but we also want it to be given to us. We want to choose because it doesn't feel free otherwise. But we also want it to be grounded by being given because we don't want anyone else to be allowed to question our choice; a "choice" that, not incidentally, that is (or feels) forced upon us in our teen years.

Incidentally, you couldn't do it. Even if there were only five or six kids playing in the rye at the edge of the cliff, one of them would get past you and plunge to their death. If there were thousands, well ... And, did you ever notice that land near the edges of cliffs doesn't tend to be arable? That you don't find fields of rye near the edges of cliffs? This may seem like entering into the thought experiment on it's own spooky level but that is what you have to do with a thought experiment. Otherwise you're not really doing the experiment. 

It matters a whole lot that the Burns' poem Caulfield mishears is about sex—that he hears a line about sex and imagines a childish world free of sex. The whole fantasy that Holden has is about avoiding adulthood.

Speaking of experiments, one seemingly obvious solution would be to try an identity and then later reject it for another if it doesn't work out. That's a version of the identity lie that some of my generation embraced. David Bowie, it was said, reinvented himself over and over again. I think he even believed that once upon a time but all Bowie's identities were variations on the same pattern and when you look at his rather unhappy life, the suspicion begins to set in that he didn't particularly like any of the variations.

However we might acquire an identity, it's very hard to change once we have it. Here's a seemingly trivial example. As a teen, I admired and emulated Mick Jagger. I didn't look like him beyond having a similar slim build but I figured out how to dance like him and got to be good enough at it that people in clubs would walk up and compliment me.  On one level, I've long moved past that and yet I periodically get an urge to play "Brown Sugar" really, really loud. I can't unlike the music I loved as a teen. And by saying I like that music, I don't mean I put it on and think, "That's a nice tune." No, I get a visceral response to it. I recognize that Don Giovanni is a much greater work of art than Sticky Fingers but I could easily go the rest of my life without hearing Don Giovanni again. 

Imagine how much harder it would be  to uproot the sexual tastes that were inculcated in you as a teen. (Or not, as there are a lot of people who don't much like sex.) I say "inculcated" because it implies something that happened to you. Your sexuality isn't, or isn't entirely, up to you. The culture around you, the people who accept or refuse you, even your own emotions, are beyond your control. The Stoic/Gnostic claim that there is some "inside" you can retreat to, a place where you and only you call the shots/thoughts is like trying to make a knife proof vest—much of the time it will stop the knife but if the world keeps stabbing you, and it will, inevitably a point will find a vulnerability and the blade will penetrate. It will go deep.

It ain't the knife to your heart that tears you apart;
It's the thought of someone
Sticking it in.
Graham Parker
 Is the problem the notion that you're entitled to an identity in the first place? Maybe we just do stuff for a while and one day we realize we have one. 

Is my identity like my body?  I have some control over my body. I can work at being more or less fit. I can control my weight. These both take a lot of work but they can be done. But I can't really pick my body type. That's a contentious statement in an era when people talk about being assigned a gender. It's actually worse than the people who hate it imagine. For my genes didn't just assign me manhood, they assigned me a particular kind of male body. I can, and did, get to be strong by lifting weights but I could never have been a competitive body builder or weightlifter. I just don't have the body type for either.  I suspect identity works the same way. You have a range of choices but you can't pick your identity. Thinking you can, thinking that "fighting to be who I am" is a coherent statement is a recipe for misery.

* I think he means "it's" as in "it is crazy". I don't know if the grammatical mistake is in the original or the transcription I cribbed off the internet. If in the original, it's presumably Caulfield's mistake. Maybe he's adopting the dialect of the source and thereby committing hate speech or something.

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