Thursday

March 30th, 2017

Insight

The divided self

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published March 19, 2015

News item: "Leonard Nimoy, the sonorous, gaunt-faced actor who won a worshipful global following as Mr. Spock, the resolutely logical human-alien first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie juggernaut Star Trek, died on Friday morning (Feb. 27) at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 83. ... (He) had developed what he later admitted was a mystical identification with Spock, the lone alien on the starship's bridge. Yet he also acknowledged ambivalence about being tethered to the character, expressing it most plainly in the titles of two autobiographies: 'I Am Not Spock,' published in 1977, and 'I Am Spock,' published in 1995."

--The New York Times

Not just actors may develop an ambiguous identification with another self. So do writers when they take on another persona. Jorge Luis Borges, master storyteller, wrote a concise masterpiece of a short story dealing with the subject of dual identity. Its title is "Borges and I," and it's become a classic that rewards re-reading. In it, Borges the man discusses Borges the writer with a degree of resentment:

"The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.

"It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

"Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. ... Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him. I do not know which of us has written this page."

Each of us may have to come to terms with the other selves we adopt in our different roles. Which is our "real" self -- the one we fashion when talking to our children, to our spouses, to friends, to ourselves? We change roles, we change selves.

Stefan Zweig's short but somehow endless story about a chess player going mad ("The Royal Game") deals with the same conundrum.

The development of the single, integrated personality may be one of the human being's most impressive psychological achievements, along with his adoption of language, and both take place at an impressively early age. Some actors, writers and psychopaths may never achieve it. Just listen to some actors, bereft of their lines on the printed page, when they're interviewed offstage. Some are impressive personalities in their own right. Think of a Richard Burton or Paul Scofield, while others never emerge as distinctive personalities on their own. They wind up sounding like blithering idiots, and pretentious ones at that, their comments as vapid as a blank script. Still others make great con men -- or great assassins like John Wilkes Booth.

To quote an actor and writer named Shakespeare:

What a piece of work is a man

How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!

In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

The beauty of the world.

The paragon of animals.

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

There are many dimensions to the human personality, and examining them endlessly can be exhausting. And dizzying. Better to let Leonard Nimoy be Leonard Nimoy, Spock to be Spock, Borges to be the master storyteller he is, and all of us just to be our self without undue reflection.

The human mind may not be able to bear too much self-examination, lest it turn into just an endless, shattered hall of mirrors, each shard reflecting only a partial truth. And like poor Stefan Zweig's tormented chess master, we are left to make sense of the jumble our mind has become. Better to accept a single identity without thinking about it overmuch. We're all sufficiently crazy already without driving ourselves crazier.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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