Monday, February 9, 2009

Identity Issues

What shook me and put me to shame was the disparity between my personal rank and the resounding extravagance of world history marking the crisis of my fortieth year [the outbreak of World War I]. No doubt, it is fate to be so placed in time that the beginning of a new phase in one’s personal life coincides with a catastrophe of historic proportions. Happy—I often thought in those years—happy is he who for his entire life is allowed to feel the same cultural ground beneath him. Many an hour I spent with the writings, notes, and epigrams in which Goethe sought to deal with the French Revolution, and it was a comfort to me to see how this great man, who also imagined he would keep the same societal and intellectual ground under his feet, experienced such difficulty in coming to terms with the new, and to incorporate it into his world and his work.

--Thomas Mann, “Gegen Recht und Wahrheit,” in “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen”

Who am I, where do I come from, that I cannot make or wish myself to be different? That is the question to which one seeks an answer in times of spiritual anguish.

--Thomas Mann, “Die Bürgerlichkeit,” in “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen”


I just wanted to bring these two quotes to your attention. They strike me as unquestionably true, but I sometimes have a hard time saying why. The question of personal identity is of course deeply personal—but it can never be answered without relation to others around us.

When I learn to speak, I speak with “the other”; I address that other person (usually my father or mother) in the second person singular—thou. (This idea I owe to Martin Buber, of course.)

I think this observation can be extended a little further so that it sheds some more light on my question. Once I become aware of a “thou,” I also become aware of a “we.” I, even as a little baby, know that my mother and father are not completely separate from me, but are instead deeply attached to me. Just as I cannot define myself apart from a “thou,” I cannot identify who I am apart from a larger group, the “we.”

I hope you’ve stuck with me so far; I apologize for writing like a German philosopher. I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: A change in the “we” necessarily causes a change in the “I.” Being human means being exposed to these changes and being changed by others. And, what is the price of that change, at least for most people? Anguish.

Nevertheless, the individual’s task is to make sure that change is for the better, even if society changes for the worse. Or, to put it another way, the individual must react to changes (and thereby change himself), and even suffer anguish in the process, but the individual is still free to choose how to react (and thereby change himself). He can react for better or for worse; he can change for better or for worse. In the end, though, I suppose that happiness is not possible without anguish.
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