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March 13, 2007
I thought I'd put up the 5-minute presentation for tomorrow's seminar as today's post: it's cheating, really, but it provides a sort of manifesto of my train of thought so far.
There’s a scene in the Italian movie La Febbre when the hero dreams of returning his new ID card to the President with the words, “I don’t want to be Italian. I just want to be Mario.” The President responds, “Keep it. It may come in useful”: and we, the audience, are encouraged to believe that some kind of definitive conclusion has been reached in the reply. The opposite is surely the truth: we have been cheated.
Both my parents come from lower-middle-class families in the West Country: I was born into a middle-middle-class existence in the Home Counties. That, combined with my race and gender, gave me the general identity responsible for a great deal of the worst things that have ever happened in human history: thus, for reasons that I have never fully been able to understand, I am a member of a sect with a lot of guilt in its past. But the same thought has occurred to me as to Mario: I shouldn’t have to be English. I don’t want to be English any more than I want to be American or Iraqi. I don’t want to be white any more than I want to be black. And I’d quite like to continue having a penis without having to carry all of the cultural shame that comes with being labelled as male. The response to such a statement would probably be that in doing so, I’d lose all identity: I’d argue that it’s the other way round completely.
Postmodernism has brought about cultural relativism and the idea that we should not question the values of others because we, ourselves, are part of a system. We are encouraged to “celebrate our differences”. And yet it always seems that the people who are “different” (and we ourselves) are just ‘types’, similar or the same as hundreds or thousands of others in any given sect. The tendency to revert to these types, as the President showed, is extremely tempting because it is a comforting assertion to say, “I am British”, “I‘m Christian“, “I’m an atheist”, or “I’m gay.” It encourages us in the belief that we have a real identity, and one that we can easily define ourselves: in other words, we conform to a given ideology and so actually decrease our individuality when we appear to be defining it.
Take the concept of God: a universal force surely should be examined in universal terms, by which every individual should consider the matter as an individual: it would be pleasant to think that every believer has his or her own individual take on God rather than simply a conformed view, but in reality “religions” have grown precisely because it is easier and safer not to think, but to be told what the truth is. I’d argue that it’s not just a tribal instinct, but an impulse to make the world’s outlines seem more distinct. Or take again the idea of sexuality: we are not equipped with any inbuilt sense of whether a person is male or female: all we have to go on is appearances, and a preference for masculine or feminine beauty. It is comforting to call yourself heterosexual or homosexual because it gives a sense of identity within society’s bounds: in truth, surely, all either means is that you have not yet been attracted to a member of the same or the opposite sex. Even non-conformists, predictably, form their own conformist group, still within the given bounds of a society which now survives on creating enough roles to give everybody the impression of perfect freedom.
Writers like Beckett have already stated the need to break away from our pre-set modes of thinking (as in at the climax of Endgame, when Klov tries to leave his master) but our inability to do so. In The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin suggested that, man biologically being a nomadic animal, settlement could only lead to stagnation. Whether he is right in suggesting that we cannot have a home and maintain our independence from that home is still uncertain, but at the least, a life of travel should theoretically in some senses lead to true detachment from ideology and yet a fuller individuality: that is, the person who is outside all cultures should be also able to rise above them.
I’d argue, then, that identity, like love, should come from what we choose, not what we are born with: to put it another way, we should care for something for a reason other than that we have known it for the longest time. The difference between the roles created by society and true individuality are as different as video games to reality: if we exist too much within them, we cease to think other than within their boundaries. To reach a better sense of who we are then, must mean losing all of the tags we have previously placed upon ourselves, and discovering our true aspects, which we cannot yet so easily name.