The Manifold of Self


We need not be surprised that even so intelligent and educated a man as Harry should take himself for a Steppenwolf and reduce the rich and complex of his life to a formula so simple, so rudimentary and primitive. Man is not capable of thought in any high degree, and even the most spiritual and highly cultivated of men habitually sees the world and himself through the lenses of delusive formulas and artless simplifications – and most of all himself. For it appears to be an inborn and imperative need of all men to regard the self as a unit. However often and however grievously this illusion is shattered, it always mends again. The judge who sits over the murderer and looks into his face, and at one moment recognizes all the emotions and potentialities and possibilities of the murderer in his own soul and hears the murderer’s voice as his own, is at the next moment one and indivisible as the judge, and scuttles back into the shell of his cultivated self and does his duty and condemns the murderer to death. And if the suspicion of their manifold being dawns upon men of unusual powers and of unusually delicate perceptions, so that, as all genius must, they break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves, they have only to say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key, calls science to aid, establishes schizomania and protects humanity from the necessity of hearing the cry of truth from the lips of these unfortunate persons. Why then waste words, why utter a thing that every thinking man accepts as self-evident, when the mere utterance of it is a breach of taste? A man, therefore, who gets so far as making the supposed unity of self two-fold is already almost a genius, in any case a most exceptional and interesting person. In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. It appears to be a necessity as imperative as eating and breathing for everyone to be forced to regard this chaos as a unity and to speak of his ego as though it were a one-hold and clearly detached and fixed phenomenon. Even the best of us shares the delusion.

-Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf

Heidegger could not have put it better himself! The manifold of self, the forward streaming projection of possibilities – of different forms of being and experience – is what makes up the peculiarities of human vibrance. From atheist to Christian and back again, the world becomes enveloped with multiple shades of meaning accordingly. When filled with the spirit, the cross takes on a holy value – not so much in a vapidly subjective overlay – but in the sense of deeper significance to self and being. But when the veil is lifted and naturalism invades the mind, the cross is seen as a symbol – or simulacrum – of something else entirely. But it is usually not seen as mere wood either for that requires a carpenter or scientist’s perspective. Through transformations of self, the potentials of experience multiply. But, as we leave our old selves behind in time, we carry them with us into the future. The self is often only along for the ride, behind dragged along by the leash of memory; but sometimes – and crucially – the self comes into realization, into control of possibility. “Be still and know that I am God.” But as Heidegger made great strides to point out, the self is not the ground of existence, but the reverse. Below the sporadic flux of self-awareness lies a great organic reactivity. It is from this primordial material that selfhood is constructed. Those who see this understand that self-existence is a precious moment in time, to be cherished and persisted after. For humans can certainly exist when their self does not. In fact, as Hesse says, “life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands.” From child to adult, student to teacher, birth to death, Dasein is essentially only a potentiality of being. It is a stable category only in our minds, but being-in-the-world reveals there is one planet but many worlds, some public, some private, but worlds they all are, for each of us.

Care expresses itself with the “I” initially and for the most part in the “fleeting” talk about the I in taking care of things. The they-self keeps on saying I most loudly and frequently because at bottom it is not authentically itself and evades it authentic potentiality-of-being. If the ontological constitution of the self can neither be reduced to a substantial I nor to a “subject,” but if, on the contrary, the everyday fleeting saying-I must be understood in terms of our authentic potentiality-of-being, the statement still does not follow that the self is the constantly objectively present ground of care. Existentially, selfhood is only to be found in the authentic potentiality-of-being-a-self, that is, in the authenticity of being of Da-sein as care.

-Heidegger, Being and Time


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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

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