Walker Percy Wednesday 125


(6) Consider the following short descriptions of different kinds of consciousness of self. Which of the selves, if any, do you identify with?

(a) The cosmological self. The self is either unconscious of itself or only conscious of itself insofar as it is identified with a cosmological myth or classificatory system, e.g., totemism. Ask a Bororo tribesman: Who are you? He may reply: I am parakeet. (Ask an L.S.U. fan at a football game: Who are you? He may reply: I am a tiger.)

(b) The Brahmin-Buddhist self. Who are you? What is your self? My self in this life is impaled on the wheel of non-being, obscured by the veil of unreality. But it can realize itself by penetrating the veil of maya and plumbing the depths of self until it achieves nirvana, nothingness, or the Brahman, God. The atman (self) is the Brahman (God).

(c) The Christian self (and, to a degree, the Judaic and Islamic self). The self sees itself as a creature, created by God, estranged from God by an aboriginal catastrophe, and now reconciled with him. Before the reconciliation, the self is, as Paul told the Ephesians, a stranger to every covenant, with no promise to hope for, with the world about you and no God. But now the self becomes a son of God, a member of a family of selves, and is conscious of itself as a creature of God embarked upon a pilgrimage in this life and destined for happiness and reunion with God in a later life.

(d) The role-taking self. One sociological view of the self is that the self achieves its identity by taking roles and modeling its own role from the roles of others, e.g., one’s mother, father, housewife, breadwinner, macho-boy-man, feminine-doll-girl, etc.—and also, as George Mead said, upon how one perceives others’ perceptions of oneself.

(e) The standard American-Jeffersonian high-school-commencement Republican-and-Democratic-platform self. The self is an individual entity created by God and endowed with certain inalienable rights and the freedom to pursue happiness and fulfill its potential. It achieves itself through work, participation in society, family, the marketplace, the political process, cultural activities, sports, the sciences, and the arts. It follows that in a free and affluent society the self should succeed more often than not in fulfilling itself. Happiness can be pursued and to a degree caught.

(f) The diverted self. In a free and affluent society, the self is free to divert itself endlessly from itself. It works in order to enjoy the diversions that the fruit of one’s labor can purchase. The pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of diversion, and in this society the possibilities of diversion are endless and as readily available as eight hours of television a day: TV, sports, travel, drugs, games, newspapers, magazines, Vegas.

(g) The lost self. With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated, Jefferson or no Jefferson, is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland. The rational Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness embarked upon in the American Revolution translates into the flaky euphoria of the late twentieth century. Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance—so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly.

(h) The scientific and artistic self. Or that self which is so totally absorbed in the pursuit of art or science as to be selfless. The modern caricature is the “absentminded professor” or the demonic possessed artist, which is to say that as a self he is “absent” from the usual concerns of the self about itself in the world. E.g., Karl von Frisch and his bees, Schubert in a beer hall writing lieder on the tablecloth, Picasso in a restaurant modeling animals from bread.

(i) The illusory self. Or the conviction that one’s sense of oneself is a psychological or cultural illusion and that with the advance of science, e.g., behaviorism, Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, the self will disappear.

(j) The autonomous self. The self sees itself as a sovereign and individual consciousness, liberated by education from the traditional bonds of religion, by democracy from the strictures of class, by technology from the drudgery of poverty, and by self-knowledge from the tyranny of the unconscious—and therefore free to pursue its own destiny without God.

(k) The totalitarian self. The self sees itself as a creature of the state, fascist or communist, and understands its need to be specified by the needs of the state.