So as part of my MA studies, I decided to read Sartre’s voluminous tome, Being and Nothingness. It is a dense phenomenological investigation of what it is to be. Did I understand every sentence? Every page? Every chapter? Not bloody likely. On the other hand, there was an immense amount that is very easily understandable. I mean, we all exist. We all experience the world from our unique vantage. We all try and make sense of what being alive is all about. So well worth the read then. One paragraph in particular has stuck in my mind, a couple of months after finishing it:
Sliding realizes a strictly individual relation with matter, an historical relation; the matter reassembles itself and solidifies in order to hold me up, and it falls back exhausted and scattered behind me. Thus by my passage I have realized that which is unique for me. The ideal for sliding then is a sliding which does not leave any trace. It is sliding on water with a rowboat or motor boat or especially with water skis which, though recently invented, represent from this point of view the ideal limit of aquatic sports. Sliding on snow is already less perfect; there is a trace behind me by which I am compromised, however light it may be. Sliding on ice, which scratches the ice and finds a matter already organized, is very inferior, and if people continue to do it despite all this, it is for other reasons. Hence that slight disappointment which always seizes us when we see behind us the imprints which our skis have left on the snow. How much better it would be if the snow re-formed itself as we passed over it!
Podcast listeners will recall Andy Martin referencing this same paragraph in an episode from last year. Why is it interesting? I am constantly fascinated by the concept of identity. Is there continuity in selfhood? This is a silly question. Of course there is continuity. I think when we find any discontinuity in the people we interact with, we notice it immediately: “he’s not acting himself”. But how much choice is involved in this continuity? What is the connection between one moment and another? The arrow continues on a trajectory and doesn’t ask whether it is going the right way. I often think of identity as a paperchain of people. Each one is us, and the chain is us too. We slide along, looking behind us, cutting out a shape more-or-less like the one before.
Consider another quote from the same book:
I write that Paul in 1920 was a student at the Polytechnic School. Who is it who "was?" Paul evidently, but what Paul? The young man of 1927. But the only tense of the verb "to be" which suits Paul considered in 1920--So far as the quality of being a Polytechnic student is attributed to him--is the present. In so far as he was, we must say of him-"He is." If it is a Paul now become past who was a student at the Polytechnic School, all connection with the present is broken: the man who sustained that qualification, the subject, has remained back there with his attribute in 1920. If we want remembering to remain possible, we must on this hypothesis admit a recollecting synthesis which stems from the present in order to maintain the contact with the past. This is a synthesis impossible to conceive if it is not a mode of original being. Failing such a synthesis, we will have to abandon the past to its superb isolation.
The superb isolation of the past. Indeed, this should seem obvious. England in the 1600s is a very different place from now. We can study it as though it were a foreign country, as alien as any we might choose. Our past identity is equally as alien (or at least can be). We ask the future to continue our projects. Whether this is a nation state laying down down proposals for projects that may take decades to complete, or whether it is a person setting themselves a long-term goal, unsure whether they can or will continue the project in the future. We trust that the plan will come to fruition. But that trust is not between different people, but different temporal identities. Past Louie begs that future Louie does his bidding.
But also let’s flip it. By what right do we claim the achievements of the past? Louie-in-the-past earnt a PhD. Are all future Louies to come really allowed to live off that for the rest of our life? Like existential magpies, we seem happy to collect the shiny accolades of the past into our identity, and forget or assuage past misdeeds. Does any of it actually belong to us?
Finally, one further quote from Sartre:
I did not have any excuse; for as we have said repeatedly in this book, the peculiar character of human-reality is that it is without excuse.
And if my understanding of identity has any fundamental basis, it is this. We are without excuse. No gods, no psychology, no history, no biology. Yes, there is facticity (circumstances we could not have changed), but even that alone cannot remove our freedom. The paperman before is no more of an excuse than the paperman to come. If he is made of crepe paper, card, or another material, there is still some ability to make something of himself.
I have been talking about self and idenity, but does any of this impact my interactions with others (for example when I work with the bereaved)? Obviously it does. When clients cement themselves into the past (through beliefs and values), I try and at least get them to recognise that it is a choice to do so. I do not judge anyone for nailing themselves to the cross of their past. That is the prerogative of each of us. But nailed is not freedom. And if we recognise other ways of being (the discontinuity of the self, the fact the the past can be divorced from us), then perhaps we would be different (better) beings? Louie is dead. Long live Louie?Go Top