The first in a series of explorations on the topic of the mind and self, this post fires and wires the foundations of the topic itself – the mind and self, and how they are or are not inextricable from each other.
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Are you male or female, a man or a woman? Or are you more complicated than these convenient markers of sex and gender we find on nearly every form out there? When I used to teach General Paper (i.e. eons ago), I used to begin the topic of Gender with a simple question – what’s the difference between male/female and man/woman? The answers would come thick and fast every time. Male/female is our sex – it defines our biological bodies! Man/woman is our gender, defined by social and cultural factors! Looking back, the intelligence of these answers stems from a wider objectivity that as we ponder over our Topic Paper seems unsatisfactory, especially by the very ‘objects’ defined by biology, society and culture. Beyond my race, my religion, my upbringing, my socio-economic status and my body, I think I am something more. I believe it.
In The Ego Trick, Julian Baggini searches for the ever-elusive answers to the nature of the self, studying neuroscience, religion, psychology and good old-fashioned metaphysics. Early in his book, he tells us, no, reminds us that:
Identity cannot float free from the physical. But it does not follow that it is in our bodies that we find the pearl of self. Our sense of self is rooted in what we think and how we feel (Baggini 15).
The self is undoubtedly shaped by our bodies and our environments, but it is first of all centred on our thoughts and feelings. These mental processes can be shaped by how we look, the emotions our brains trigger (i.e. our bodies), what we see, whom we interact with, and the places that become a part of us (i.e. the ‘environments’ we are in), amongst an endless conveyor belt of pieces that we put together to call ‘me’.
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The Sense of Self
Identity is a process. Our identities are a product of these collective ‘environments’, which constantly change. We age. We gain weight, lose our teeth and other parts of our body decide to break down. Where we call home might change. Our dinner company changes, like how our family will evolve, with marriage, death and new life. With all of these shifts and swirls, it is up to us to constantly create, perceive and project who we are onto the world around us.
Our sense of self is not the image we see in the mirror. It is the mirror we hold up for ourselves – a reflection of our identity that is distorted, fractured or selectively incomplete.
Sense of self over time is therefore ‘the story that we tell ourselves that keeps us together’. We may go through major transformations, not just brain injuries… Are we the same people when we come through them? In some sense yes, in some sense no, but it seems we have no choice but to believe that we are’. (Paul Broks, in Baggini 39)
For Baggini, the self is a robust fragility. It is robust because it can withstand constant rewriting of ‘our story’ and demolition. It is fragile because it can be destroyed if foundations are shattered.
In Woman in Mind and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Susan and Martha have their identities as women, wives and mothers threatened by their family members (Rick’s desertion, Gerald’s coldness, George’s mediocrity) and biological consequences (Susan being knocked unconscious, Martha or George’s presumed infertility) too.
While we are studying Measure for Measure as a Paper 1 text, Angelo’s soliloquy in 2.4 provides us a similar study of the self breaking down. Here, Angelo’s image as a restrained, just Puritan – repeated to us by various characters – is interrogated by Angelo himself: ‘What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?’ By the end of the scene, he admits to being quite ‘subdued’ by his temptation and seemingly accepts his ‘new’ lustful self.
All three plays converge upon the self as an ongoing story-telling process, one rehearsed and enacted in the mind, rife with tension, pregnant with tragedy (alas!).
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Knowing the Mind
Cogito ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am. The capacity for thought, as the Cartesian proverb tells us, defines who we are, not our physical selves. While the dualism proposed by Descartes has since won a long line of detractors, the quotation is a useful reminder that the ‘self’ is constructed in the mind – of our ‘thoughts, feelings and sensations’. The mind ‘should not be thought of a substance, but as a kind of activity‘ within our brains and bodies (Baggini 63).
Both Woman in Mind and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf take us into the consequences of this activity of constructing the self. In the former, the audience bears witness to the incomprehensibly garbled mind of Susan, seeing, thinking and in some sense feeling the way Susan is. We sympathise with her desperate attempts to re-construct her identity in her fantasy family, and greet Gerald and Rick’s systematic destruction of it in equal parts horror and pity. The audience of Woolf is mostly engulfed in horror when Martha unleashes the repressed rage in her mind on George, Nick and Honey (the visiting couple is a stand-in for the innocent audience).
For most of ‘Mr Bleaney’, the reader enters the mind of a persona who simultaneously lives and dreads the ‘habits’ of Mr Bleaney, experiencing his annoyance and then his own uncertain projection of Mr Bleaney’s peculiar contentment with his life. The persona’s mind tries to access Mr Bleaney’s, but ultimately the reader can only understand the persona’s self – one which is not so different from Mr Bleaney.
Interestingly, the persona refuses to settle this argument with himself, the poem ending on the deliberately evasive final clause of ‘I don’t know’. Robbing oneself of intention and agency (i.e. “I’m the victim, dammit!”) is a recurring theme in all our texts: Martha and Susan play the blame game, and repeatedly – perhaps to the frustration of a wiser audience – retreats from even the possibility of resolving their respective relationships. They are not what they think they are. They are how they think.
The persona of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ provides a facile demonstration of this. The poem itself is a’rapid, often wild succession of elements relating to’ the person’s father; the persona seeks to cast these aside to end on a triumphant rejection: ‘Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.’ Even if directed to her father, the persona is ultimately in dialogue with herself, purging her mind of her love and memories all at once.
To fulfil her self-image, Susan fabricates a world – family, servants, champagne, tennis courts – in her mind. To realise her ideal self, Martha imposes her mind on her husband and her guests. To see herself, the persona in ‘Daddy’ sheds the pieces of herself (and her father) stuck in her mind.
We think, we feel, we are. Or more precisely, we think and feel to try to find who we are.
In the next post, we examine the construction of the self in relation to ‘other selves’ by further studying ‘Mr Bleaney’ and Woman in Mind.