by Richard Nilsen
Between me and the rest of the earth, the rest of the solar system, the rest of the cosmos, is a thin membrane, infinitesimal by actual measurement, but infinite in its impassability. Outside this membrane you find all but one of the 7 billion people of the planet, all the dogs, cats, mosquitoes, all the edible plants, all the mountains, everything you come to experience in a lifetime; inside the membrane is you. It is the integument of selfhood. You can think of it as your skin, all organs and blood inside; all sidewalk and oak tree outside. But although its physical embodiment is your human hide, its psychological existence is something else.
Neuroscientists are currently making all kinds of new discoveries about the origin of self — a sense of who you are, the nature of consciousness — and most of those involve the blasting of synapses in the brain. Consciousness may very well be an illusion created by flashing neurons. But we’ll let the scientists discuss what’s under the hood. I am more interested in the experience of consciousness, the feeling of self. Whether we exist merely as a pattern of nerves or not, the experience doesn’t change. We live as if we were embodied souls, as the ghost in the machine. Knowing we are Pavlovian stimulus responders doesn’t alter the sense of being a sentient human individual.
For each of us has this inexplainable sense that we are a pivot of consciousness, that we know ourselves not only at this moment, but know the same person we were in our past. There is a through-line, a narrative that can be told from birth to now, and that will continue until the story is over and the book is closed. We are not merely some sea urchin twitching to the alien touch of a passing lobster; there is more to it than stimulus and response. There is the “me.” And what is that? Again, I’m not looking for a clinical answer: That will come as we dissect more grey cells and discover the inevitable dreariness of it all. I mean, what is the “me” that we recognize and feel not only each morning as our feet hit the floor, but even at night in our dreams. It is, after all, “me” that is doing the dreaming.
The most notable thing about the self is that although it is contained in a human body, it is more like Dr. Who’s Tardis — that is, it is bigger on the inside than on the outside. Inside, the mind is — in Andrew Marvell’s words, “that Ocean where each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find,” meaning that everything in the world is reproduced inside the mind, an interior reflection of the external world. Or, as Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” It is crowded inside the head.
So, can something so immense really be contained in such a small bottle? The self is infinitely larger than the meat in which it is housed. And it is so insistent. Outside of a few psychological aberrations, the self is remarkably consistent.
I remember as a young man talking to a friend who was having an “identity crisis,” and I had a difficult time understanding him. For I have always had a very secure and firm sense of who I was. I furrowed my brow: Who else could I be? How could I not know my identity? It’s right there with me constantly; I was born with it. I cannot escape it. I don’t doubt he was sincere; there are many recorded instances of people with such identity crises, but I cannot grasp quite what they are dealing with, because it seems identity is not something you choose, but comes with the packaging.
In a comic way, we might recognize the “me” as the person driving the tank we move around in, looking out the eyehole, listening in on the headphone. We might imagine a homunculus inhabiting our skullcaps, pulling the levers and pressing the buttons, making the decisions whether to go right or left, whether to eat that old slice of salami — after all, it still looks OK.
Yet, that misrepresents our sense of self. For it is more than a driver making choices. We feel ourselves in our confidence and in our timorousness, in our anger and in our sorrow. We feel the rest of our bodies are part of us, too. We feel the ache in our knee or the indigestion in our gut. That is part of our “self,” also.
The problem is that we know very well that we are not simply our brains. We feel things in our gut, we bleed from our cut fingers, we poop daily and at moments, feel intense desire in other quarters. And it is clear that our conscious mind is only a small percentage of that self we seek. So much of what is us acts autonomically. We digest the salami, we pump blood without willing such. It is all part of us.
Yet, the consciousness is what draws our attention. We feel that as humans, we are conscious in a way other animals are not. The sea urchin is in some sense conscious of the passing lobster, but unlike you or me, it is not aware that it is aware. We are. And what is that last gateway we have passed through that lets us know we are aware? That is the human consciousness. Now, it may turn out that porpoises or bonobos have something similar, but as yet, such has not been discovered.
And more than that, we feel ourselves telescoped out into the world we inhabit. Consider something as mundane as parking your car. You cannot see the rear bumper, but you know — you feel — how far it projects out behind you, just as you know where your feet are even if you don’t look. If you are sitting at your desk writing and don’t like what is drawn out of your pen, you crumple the paper up and you can toss it into the wastepaper basket behind you without looking: You have a sense of your self in the room.
I say the self is bounded by the skin, but that skin is a semi-permeable membrane. Some leaks out; some leaks in.
The extent of self in space is vague and fluid; sometimes it stretches out, sometimes it retracts. It is as if you have a haze of selfness that acts as a nimbus around your physical being; it is what is tested when someone is uncomfortably close, invading your “personal space.”
Then, there is the way you can actually leave your body and assume the thoughts and feelings of someone not yourself, as when you watch a film and weep uncontrollably when the character on the screen suffers some debilitating loss. The hero dies and we die with him — at least temporarily. We can protrude from our bodies like an amoebic pseudopod and take up residence in another, and can, like Bill Clinton, “feel your pain.” Empathy is the momentary disappearance of the wall of skin between one sentient being and another. All great art is based on this bit of ambiguity in the blueprint for human life. Indeed, whole religions are built on the perceived fictionality of human separation and individuality. At times of great stress and moment, we are most likely to recognize the commonality of human experience, the sense that we are “all one.”
This is, of course, at odds with that other and opposing truth of existence: that each of us is not one, but many.
And there are the other selves you are surprised by, as when you need to haul out your sympathetic ear and instead the peevish you emerges, or when you need to fix the gutters and this lazy version of yourself makes excuses. The face we show to our boss is not the same one our underlings see. The ugly face that shows up in online comments is certainly darker than the one we smile at our mothers-in-law.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote about this and says:
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), Chilean writer, France, 1971. (Photo by Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)
When I call for a hero,
out comes my lazy old self;
so I never know who I am,
nor how many I am or will be
I’d love to be able to touch a bell
and summon the real me,
because if I really need myself,
I mustn’t disappear.
We think of our self — our ego — as singular, but in reality its edge is fuzzy and indistinct, like the haze above hot grease, like the moon seen through overcast. If you try to pin it down, you can’t know its direction; if you know its speed, you cannot localize it. Personality is a quantum substance, both wave and particle.
Our young selves are not our old ones; our morning selves, before coffee, are not our afternoon selves, or our night selves, after a few glasses of pinot. Our selves with our spouse is not our office self. The face we wear for public speaking is not the one we allow out when we stub a toe. Neruda wrote:
“Of the many men who I am, who we are,
I can’t find a single one;
They disappear among my clothes,
They’ve left for another city.”
We finally aggregate all these selves, like marbles in a leather pouch, and call them our self. It is a term of art, so to speak, a legal fiction so that when we sign our names on the dotted line, we confidently assert to the world outside our skin that it ourself we sign, our singular, conscious self. But if we permit ourselves the truth, we know it is a lie.
Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.