Let's return to a topic I've been pondering quite a lot recently. So in some of the previous posts, I have been examining what it is to be a human being. Let us refer back to a diagram I drew for one of those earlier posts. Here consciousness sits like bubbles in a boiling saucepan of water, atop the two aspects that appear to determine being (using the analogy of the water, they are the hydrogen and the oxygen). We have soma (the body) and identity (psychological heritage).
Now, let's assume that gender fluidity is a phenomenon that reflects a loosening of the importance of the biological aspect of human being. Just because our biology argues that we "are" something, doesn't mean we have to abide by it. Evolution can set up the chess board, but I think it is evident that evolution cannot compel us to play the game (at least we do not have to follow the rules). If that is true (and that's not the topic of this post), then is there anything corresponding to gender fluidity for identity? Is identity fluidity a thing? That is the topic of this post (and both questions will continue to be examined into the future). So let's consider something that might be relevant to this notion of identity fluidity: multiple personality.
Funnily enough, I have always been a sceptic regarding multiple personality (otherwise known as dissociative identity disorder). (My thoughts on mental illness and the medical model of the mind are again for a later post.) But if there are identity-fluid individuals, perhaps like with gender, we should expect a variety of presentations of that fluidity. So let's consider one particular case. I found this account in a book by Boris Sidis, an American psychologist who worked under William James at the turn of the last century. I will write more about Boris and his son William in a future post. From Sidis's book, Multiple Personality:
The subject was a man of muscular, somewhat angular outline, past middle age, in admirable health, and so far as is known free from any personal or inherited neuropathic taint. For many years he had resided in a thriving town near Philadelphia, and by strict application to his trade as tinsmith and plumber, had accumulated considerable means. With these resources he at last opened up an establishment of his own, and, being singularly industrious and straightforward, he prospered steadily in his business. As his sons grew up they shared in the business, and at the time of his disappearance had materially assisted him in the execution of some large contracts, from which he realised handsome profits. For years he had enjoyed ordinarily good health, and was not known to possess any eccentricities or morbid tendencies. His domestic relations were harmonious, his social position better than ever before, and he was not known to have any secret, immoral, or illicit indulgences of any kind whatever.
The Sunday of his disappearance he remained in the house all day, as it was a dull, gloomy November day, engaged mainly in reading and in play with his younger children, to whom he was greatly attached. About four o'clock in the afternoon he got up from the lounge on which he had been reclining, reading, changed his house-jacket for an ordinary business-day coat, slipped on an easy pair of shoes, and, to his wife's questions, stated he was going out for a short walk in the street 'for a little fresh air.' Noting the time, she cautioned him not to go far, as they would soon have dinner. He promised not to keep them waiting, declared he would be back in a few moments, and that he was only going for a little turn in the main street, on which his house faced. He quietly and leisurely stepped outside the door, and although a conspicuous figure in the town and perfectly well known to nine-tenths of the people of the vicinity, he disappeared as mysteriously as though he had, as they say, 'vanished into thin air.' None of the townspeople saw him, although the streets were alive with the usual Sunday afternoon strollers. He left no trace. Rewards and detectives proved unavailing. When it was necessary to wind up the affairs of the establishment, it was found that he had taken no money, but that his wife and family were handsomely provided for. In due course of time the business was finally disposed of, the property sold, and the wife and family removed to Chicago. The family gave up all hope of ever finding even a clew to the long-lost husband and father.
Two years had almost passed when, in a tin-shop in a town in one of the far Southern States, where a number of men were engaged at their trade, suddenly one of them dropped his work and cried, as he pressed his hands to his head in a dazed, bewildered way: 'My God! Where am I! How did I come here! This isn't my shop. Where am I! What does it mean! At first the men were disposed to laugh at the reserved man, who had worked for several months so quietly by their side, and whose history they had not been able to learn a word, but when they saw his changed expression, the perspiration standing on his brow, his nervous twitchings, and noted his piteous appeals, they realised that it was all something far from jest; as he was known as a sober, most exemplary-behaved man, they could not charge him with inebriaty. They called him by a name that was now strange to him, and they insisted he had told them such was his name. At last, trembling with suppressed emotion, he made his way to the proprietor, who was quite as much startled by the man's talk and manner as had been the men below. After months of wandering and of work combined, during which period he had aged considerably, he was now awakening from—shall we say his somnambulistic sleep!
It was with some difficulty that he made the proprietor understand his true condition or believe his story of a Northern home, a family, and a prosperous business. The proprietor only knew him as a wandering tinner who had drifted into the town, sought work at his trade, was employed, proved to be a reliable, skilled and attentive workman, and regarding whose antecedents the proprietor had not inquired and the workman had not volunteered any statements. Under the fictitious name he had given he had been known and paid, but he had no knowledge of the past. He remembered nothing. At last a dim recollection came over him of that fateful Sunday, his rising to go out, the request to come back for dinner, his promise to do so in a few minutes, and then all was a blank. He had no money, although he had worked steadily for some months in this shop and had been paid good wages. What he did with the money, it seems, has never been discovered.
After ascertaining the whereabouts of his family, he made straight for Chicago, where, by the last accounts, he was living his usual normal life. Somewhat mystified over his realisation of the strange freak in which he figured, although feeling well and apparently in normal mental balance, he yet realises that he has been the central figure in some over-strange mental phenomena, quite mysterious enough to make him, at times, doubt his sanity. There are no facts explanatory of the prime cause of his disappearance, to account for the failure of his neighbours to detect his flight, to explain his wanderings, or to solve the conditions of his return to his normal self.
Remember. What we're trying to ascertain is whether it is possible to be identity-fluid, much like is currently being debated in regards to gender fluidity. Of course my natural inclination is to take a position of scepticism. And in previous decades I would have vehemently argued that such identity fluidity and gender fluidity were nothing more than social constructs, and a by-product of our narcissistic age. On the other hand, today I see any identity as essentially fictionalised. Louie doesn't exist, except as a narrative construct that argues to be continued into the future. In that case, the indivisible and incommutable self is reduced into a haphazard construction. Either an autobiography written like a game of Chinese whispers. Or we take control of it, and go wild.
One of the questions then, is do we have to medicalise this fluidity? Let's take the quoted account: Middle aged man leaves his shop and disappears. After years he turns up, seemingly having forgotten who he was. One of my favourite fictional stories is H. G. Well's story (voted number 39 of the top 100 novels in English), The History of Mr Polly. It is an amazing story, about a man who marries a woman, runs a shop and then decides that he hates his life. I don't think it spoils too much to say that he sets up a plan to leave his old life and finds freedom in a new life of anonymity. Could the man in the quoted account actually have decided to leave his life under his own volition, rather than as a consequence of some kind of mental disturbance? Again we are not interested so much in neurological or psychiatric so-called illness, but rather whether existentially we can take control of who and what we are.
As I've been pondering these questions, quite by chance a new word fell into my lexicon: tulpas. Apparently (and I'm the first to admit I'd never heard ot it) [comes a cry from the back "shock horror, something Louie doesn't know!!"] there are those who experience what they call plurality of consciousness (for an example see this video). If we accept their claims at face value, they appear to be evidence of an emerging phenomenon of identity-fluid individuals (whether the phenomenon is truly new is, of course, up for debate). From the sub-Reddit on tulpas:
A tulpa is a mental companion created by focused thought and recurrent interaction, similar to an imaginary friend. However, unlike them, tulpas possess their own will, thoughts and emotions, allowing them to act independently.
Well I offer the thought provoking statement, that perhaps we are all tulpas of a sort. (Asked to explain this statement, I say that we are the tulpas of our parents and our teachers. Created in the crucible of the family and school. Perhaps tulpamancers have happened upon a trick first discovered when humans began telling stories in caves thousands of years ago...)
Further evidence of identity fluidity: Quite recently a study popped up in the popular press declaring that the longest running personality study revealed a distinct lack of continuity in personality over the long term. Whilst the headlines declared that "You're a completely different person at 14 and 77", the thought popped into my head that maybe this instability represents a creeping change almost too imperceptible to notice. Like the frog who doesn't realise the water in the saucepan is heating up, we don't realise we are changing because the change is so small. Again, is this an example of identity fluidity? Well certainly it could be an example of a more passive (and more socially acceptable) version.
My final thoughts are these: Organised religion imposed an order on society and the individuals that composed those societies. With the increasing secularisation and individualisation of the West, we have seen an increase in so-called mental health issues. On the other hand (referring to the original diagram), if neither biology nor identity provides solid ground upon which to existentially anchor ourselves, perhaps our nihilistic youth is finally learning that the lies of the forefathers (the priesthood?) were nothing more than the emperor's new clothes (or the Wizard of Oz). Existentially free to choose, they reject traditional gender roles and assumptions, and traditional identity roles and assumptions too. And good for them. Maybe there are better ways to be. Maybe there aren't. But good for them for trying?
Ok. So not necessarily a convincing argument, but thought provoking nevertheless. We will no doubt talk further on this topic in the future.Go Top