Thursday, March 02, 2006

Waxing poetic, philosophical and literary on selfhood

Note: This is the sixth part in a semi-regular series of posts about selfhood and related issues of cognitive philosophy. For more, see parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Many poets have written about time and its flow, from the author of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare and beyond.

I don’t claim to be old myself, and unlike an occasional “I’m getting old” column that today’s younger editorial staffers at my newspaper company have thrown up on its pages in the psat, I’m not going to pretend to be what I’m not.

However, although I’m not getting old, I am getting older. And since I’m on the far side of 40, I think I can offer a little comment on that.

Bear with me, those of you who like poetry, and literary allusions, through a poetic dialogue between myself and poets and authors of the past, and between Shakespeare and others of those poets and authors.

I loathe growing older,
And the way life,
With its past choices made and not made,
Python-like encoils my existential freedom.

I hate the constriction
Of a funnel-like previous history
Flowing downward into an ever-narrowing future
Which can often appear drain-like;
A metaphor with less than the most pleasant implications for tomorrow.

Ah, yes, tomorrow.
What was it Shakespeare said about tomorrow?
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty place from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools,
The way to dusty death.”

Shakespeare knew.
He knew constriction.
The pettiness of that eternally recurring tomorrow,
The tableau of the anti-Proustian “Envisioning of Things Future,”
Produces not humility, but caution, restraint, tentativeness, apprehension.
Apprehension, yes, that’s it.
An apprehension of taking steps too big,
Lest I walk out on a fragile limb,
Getting stuck, cat-like, in the tree of life.
Eliot knew that apprehension,
Where a life measured in coffee spoons often results.

And yet, I appreciate the freedom of maturity
Even while I loathe the responsibility it entails, nay demands.
And struggle to live with, and embrace, the dichotomy.

But the future can also be expansive.
With songs of ourselves (do I not feel as brash as Whitman to sing of myself alone?) to be sung across seas of grass and time and space,
And across starless nighttime voids of the soul,
Yawning within, with their own expansiveness.

Who is this “I” to sing of himself?
“Who am I?” asked Dickinson.
Am I nobody, and you?
Or can we sing ourselves as somebodies?
“Who am I,” I ask, just like Dickinson.

Shakespeare admonishes again:
“To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not be false to any man.”
Indeed, as he would have doubting, brooding Hamlet know,
Thou canst not be false to thyself if you but know it.
We hope.

But know myself?
Far back in the dust of history, beyond Shakespeare,
The ancient oracle of Delphi urges just that:
“Know thyself.”
And if I don’t?
If it is not possible?
Who is it that is making these choices that the world says are mine?

And the Bard saw true here as well, asking us whether that self that trods through life
Is but really walking the boards in front of the footlights,
But playing a part, or different parts for different stages, scenes and acts of life.

Is that me, or but a role that you see,
A convenience, a contrivance of my self to fit the scene,
To fit the clamor of the world around, or the madding crowd?
Do you know? Do I?

I don’t claim to have the answers for all of these questions,
To have asked the right questions,
Or even to have asked enough questions,
Enough to … know myself … very well.

At least, maybe I’ll buy some new, larger coffee spoons,
And stamp my name on them.

Perhaps I’ll brew a pot, and lift a cup high to old Will,
If he has been himself, and I myself.
Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.
The word, like his “tomorrow,”
Can creep in this petty place from day to day.
Or not.
If only old Will had ever met Prince Siddhartha.

To thine own self be content, as well as true,
Or the closest you can;
And when you toe the mark, and exclaim your lines,
Accept them as your own, the best you can.

No comments: