by Maria Popova
“The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.”
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” 30-year-old Nietzsche wrote in his treatise on how to find yourself. And yet in the century and a half since, a curious dissonance has begun to reverberate across culture: On the one hand, we have grown increasingly fixated on the self as the focal lens for interpreting the world — a fixation which Ian McEwan so brilliantly satirized and which has precipitated today’s tragic epidemic of militant identity politics; on the other hand, the rise of neuroscience has demonstrated again and again that the self we experience as so overwhelmingly real — the psychophysiological raft of experience through which we float along the river of life — is a sensory-perceptual byproduct of consciousness, completely illusory in its solidity.
Nearly half a century ago, the Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905–September 15, 1989) cast a cautionary eye to the notion of “finding oneself” in Democracy and Poetry (public library) — his magnificent Jefferson Lecture about power, tenderness, and art’s role in a healthy society.
Decades before Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s witty and wise observation that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Warren challenges the cultural trend of young people taking “time off” from school or work in order to “get away from it all” and find themselves. He writes:
In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Eater egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.
In consonance with my own deep belief in the ongoingness and fluidity of our becoming, Warren adds:
The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Academy of American Poets executive director Jennifer Benka’s beautiful observation that “poems are physical sites of discovery [and] sense-records of our humanity,” Warren considers the role of poetry as a locus of our evolving being:
How does poetry come into all this? By being an antidote, a sovereign antidote, for passivity. For the basic fact about poetry is that it demands participation, from the secret physical echo in muscle and nerve that identifies us with the medium, to the imaginative enactment that stirs the deepest recesses where life-will and values reside. Beyond that, it nourishes our life-will in the process of testing our values. And this is not to be taken as implying a utilitarian aesthetic. It is, rather, one way of describing our pleasure in poetry as an adventure in the celebration of life.
Complement this particular portion of Warren’s thoroughly transcendent Democracy and Poetry with Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit.