Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Novel of Identity

In her first novel, Man Walks into a Room, Nicole Kraus uses amnesia to investigate one relationship, a marriage. The protagonist is found wandering in the desert outside Las Vegas, with no clue how he got there or why. Turns out he is an atomic scientist whose past has been wiped out. That past includes a marriage to a woman he finds attractive enough and agreeable enough that he is ready to accept the fact that he might love her and that he indeed had wanted to marry her, but these conditionals remain, do not return him to his original state, and finally the wife leaves because she cannot live with the fact that the man she loves has changed, is in essence taking her on appearance rather than remembered history.

Not a bad novel, but piddling in comparison to Kraus' stunning second novel, The History of Love, about as complex and staggering investigation of love as you will want to read.

Then comes Richard Powers, with the disturbing and compelling dramatization of what neurologists have termed The Capgras Syndrome. The twenty-seven-year-old rotagonist sustains brain damage in an auto accident. Comatose for some time, he begins to recover tended to by his one living relative, his sister. Trouble is, thanks to the havoc wreaked by The Capgras Syndrome, he believes his sister is an impostor, a suspicion that gradually extends to his close friends and even his dog. Someone, he says, has gone to a lot of trouble and obvious expense to secure these impostors, and to coach them about the details of is life.

In The Echo Maker, Powers takes on the entire notion of the self, demonstrating how everyone in the novel begins to experience the shift in self that comes when the scenery has shifted.

Digby Wolfe tells the wonderful story of two actors caught on stage in the middle of a performance, effectively stuck. The Prompter, hidden in the wings, whispers the forgotten line from the text of the play. Still the actors appear frozen. The Prompter repeats the next line, with similar results. On the magical, Aristotelian third repetition, one of the actors turns to the Prompter with some considerable irritation. "We know what the line is, you bloody fool. We don't know which of us says it."

I am drawn along on the thermals of fancy to that brilliant stage play and motion picture, more or less inspired by the late actor, Donald Wolfit, The Dresser,in which the principal character, a splendid and hammy actor, Richard Burton, Zero Mostel, Wile E. Coyote, and Bert Lahr, all conflated into one, speaks of the out-of-body-experience he sometimes experiences while acting in which he is projected into the cheap balcony seats from which he can see himself performing his evening;s part. In the same story, we see him costuming and making up to go on as Lear, only to be scolded by his dresser, "No, no, not Lear. Tonight you are Othello!"

All these reflections are reflections on the fragile engine we call The Self.
What is self? Does it have a specific locale in the body? In the brain? Where does the Self go when the host body dies? Where, I might add, does the self go after the body has played in the National Football League for ten or twelve years and detective work, discovers he is a scientist.

The Self is strong enough to survive emotional and physical torture, only to slowly disappear with no apparent trauma or warning.

I sometimes find portions of manuscripts which I suspect have detached themselves from a student's or client's project. I read into the manuscript coming to the belief that someone may have mistaken my portfolio for his or hers and given me this remarkable document. Then it comes to me that the material was not written by a stranger, but rather by me, which translates out to being the most sneaky stranger of all.

What is The Self? What part of the brain does it occupy? Where does it go when we sleep or blog or otherwise make love?

Who was the me who wrote such exquisite or, conversely, such miserable prose, then left it, not merely as unfinished work but as a taunt to the future self, the Self I will come, the enigmatic destination at which I have arrived with no recall of the journey?

And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for...

So says Gerard Manley Hopkins, only slightly out of context. Who am I has a lot to answer for, happy or sad, writing or reading. But Who am I is nothing, compared to What, you almost might say WTF is the self?

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