When it comes to describing others we seem to have a firm grasp of the adjectives and phrases to accurately profile almost anyone. When it comes to describing ourselves it’s suddenly more complicated, abstruse, refined, opaque, multi-layered, and delicate. It requires patience and thought. This is probably because, unlike everyone else, we are unique, aren’t we? There has never been anyone even remotely like moi.
But when we stop to really think about it, it turns out that how we describe ourselves is the product of ferreting (cherry picking) and selective attention – from what we like (and dislike) in others. Growing up is all about (dis-)identifying with and mirroring off others – called socialization. It’s what the ego does to expand itself: “I am this, but I am not that.” There are no truly original descriptions of oneself because, contrary to popular opinion, there are no truly original personalities. There are unique psyches/souls, DNA, etc., but the persona is something constructed according to the rules of conformity and belonging. Before we can individualize we must first normalize. “Fitting in” has its essential merits, no doubt: It keeps things ordered, compliant, predictable, and safe. But we fit in so deeply and thoroughly that most of us also suppress our uniqueness – except of course in ways established as mostly harmless, amusing, or temporary.
All that aside, I think about how I would profile myself if it came down to seriously doing it. I have to ask: What applies truly and accurately to “this person,” and from where do his (weird) characteristics originate? Are they about me alone, or are they things I’ve learned from those I admire, tried to be like – versus – those I’ve tried to be most unlike? Without others with whom to identify and dis-identify, would “I” still be here at all?
It’s the old question of what happens to a person stranded on a desert island, away from humanity for many years. He goes mad. We’re social beings and need one another to constantly reaffirm who we are and are not. This is what human interaction is about and what it does, mostly without us even knowing. Without those mirrors the “self” fades to nothing, and what follows is a failure to thrive. We literally don’t know who we are – so we say, “what’s the point?” Such individuals start talking to the trees and animals in their effort to rekindle any crumbs of self-hood they can. The result is quite primal.
Again, that said, I come back to myself. At the risk of sounding resigned, it mostly comes down to being a grab-bag of words and phrases gathered along the road in time. For instance, on impulse I would say I’m restless and scattered. I’m also intrigued by boundaries, what isn’t said, for roads not only “not taken” but frequently avoided, audible silences and empty margins lacing together unexplored narratives. It has always been about walking a thin line between belonging and a very “blue” (subversive) imagination stuck in my DNA.
It’s easy to say all this. Everyone I’ve ever known makes either the same, or very similar, claims about themselves. It’s how they actually see themselves even if they’re lives and mine are as antithetical as can be imagined. Everyone’s a writer, an artist, a performer, a pilgrim/seeker, and a mystic. I’ll leave it at that. My only response: sois loyal envers toi-meme. Be true to yourself.
I would also honestly say that I’m a hopeless introvert and part-time recluse who over-indulges the privileges of privacy, obscurity, and anonymity. I’ve found that the most efficient means of achieving anonymity is around/within crowds (hence, the city) as opposed to the rural community (learned the hard way). In the city my home is a kind of latter-day “Balzac’s garret” – a fortress of private fantasies. I square my accounts with the world there, amidst a disarrayed feng sui of objects, strategically positioned to support my favorite illusions, rantings, and dreams. I concoct Shakespearean-like soliloquies reserved for (and truly loved by) my dog. I am the first “physiognomist” of interior design and landscaping. At this level I have no intention of sharing anything, with anyone, and wouldn’t dare anyway.
Which I suppose makes me dreadfully selfish and self-absorbed. But my home (from age and borrowed time) is the universe, shared only with the “four-leggeds.” It’s a phantasmagoria of constantly shifting scenes laid out to resolve, or find detente with, the world’s imperfections. My home mobilizes all my reserves of inwardness. It is the only inner sanctum there is, sacred ground.
In line with “Gotham City” introversion, I’m also the original anachronic flaneur. The crowd lends relief to the power of observation. I observe people from the fringes, in silence. I’m a datum among countless data. The city then becomes another room of my own, a store window where I rearrange the disarrayed. I look and buy in pursuit of bringing to life another shelf-space into my home (and mind). I collect like a church mouse – things small and relatively “worthless” but richly tailored to this body and mind.
The city dwells in the chthonic, the subterranean, while always showcasing it’s best side. The juxtapositions of strata and substrata constantly shake the urban topography. These are elixirs which also shake the psyche. Home and city, inner and outer, form an alchemy of constant movement sparked by the fire and water (calcinatio, solutio) of swirling interactions. I read the signs everyday to inventory what is truly of value, and what isn’t.
In line with this I qualify, like the artist, as one always in some kind of exile. It’s a need to constantly be liberated from conventions, stasis, labels and categories. It means seeking the margins in almost any context – not from some egoistic desire to stand out but for the simple need to breathe. It’s more claustrophobic panic than conspiracy. It just happens to be that whenever I’ve followed a prescribed path it turned out to be a lesson on what not to do the next time, where not to go, who/what not to confide in. It became an instinct to pull away and find my own clarity in the moment.
The rewards of accommodation and fitting in are tempting for many, but the need for air always leads back to voluntary exile. Exile frees me from having to move with caution, of violating protocols and rules, of upsetting others for simply trying to “belong” and then failing. Exile means a refusal to conform, a rejection of mindless norms. — I also have to say here that such exiles occur at mostly subtle levels. They are plainly nondramatic in nature – except of course when unleashed in the privacy of my living room.
Next, I would describe myself as a failed mystic – pilgrim without a shrine. This I know has been used to describe others, intellectuals mostly who have drained their resources trying to believe in “something” otherworldly/supernatural, and still failing. Every argument they posited in trying to legitimize a grand narrative of some kind never survived some festering counter-intuition buried deep down. In the end they could simply no longer lie or pretend. It’s like the Christian saying, “I was a Catholic all my life, until I reached the Age of Reason.” This is the existential cul-de-sac to which I constantly return.
The only footnote to this would be that those with whom I strongly identify are those who stay open and intensely curious about what’s left after the grand narratives – those “spaces” which can’t be named or even approached. My heroes are comfortable floating in that void. The most renowned (spiritual) atheists say that to refuse the possibility of realities beyond our understanding, our ability to grasp, is simply arrogant and stupid. At the same time such spaces are not supernatural and do not imply the existence of a divine being – in other words, terms designed to reduce “it” to conceptual models we can manage and exploit. Touche to that. The ancient term for the numinous (or numinosum) comes to mind: it’s not known what it is but is known to exist.
Next, terms like esotericist, exegete, glossator, observer, and intellectual fit well. Also the flaneur strolling through as many urban streets as possible, taking notes and laying down glyphs (graffiti) on subway walls – “Kilroy was here.” (or was it “SAMO” – Basquiat’s signature hello to New York)? Edward Said stated, “There are no rules by which intellectuals can know what to say or do; nor for the true secular intellectual are there any gods to be worshiped and looked to for unwavering guidance.” It’s always about a “spirit in opposition” which is “found in dissent.” It’s also about “disputing the images, official narratives, justifications of power circulated by an increasingly powerful media – and not only media but whole trends of thought that maintain the status quo, keeping things within an acceptable and sanctioned perspective on actuality.”
But what I really appreciate about Said is his view on the intellectual’s most necessary station – as the consummate “amateur.” He always remains one (at least in spirit), avoiding all the trappings of fealty to bosses, company lines, goals, and salaries. In this sense they are always “exiles in their own country.” Theodor Adorno said (as did Jesus in his own terms), “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” And as a writer, “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” He is incorrigibly independent in mind and spirit and answers to no one. Hence “our” eternal economic dilemma: we’re always broke and nearly always ignored.
There is virtually no place for the amateur writer/intellectual. Editors say time and time again, “not interested in personal opinion pieces.” But, I ask, what is not someone’s personal opinion?! What is not seen through someone’s personal lens? Editors, their hired minions, reserve those spaces for their “professional” selves, which means they’re only interested in their own soliloquies captured in their own living rooms.
Not to digress, but it’s worth mentioning the problem of the so-called “intellectual” in America today. He works for the boss, nine-to-five, never rocks the boat or strays outside accepted parameters, and above all “makes himself marketable.” He’s controversial and political, but only in the service of his own needs (which are the same as his boss – the editor, the executive manager, the CEO). He’s seduced by prizes and awards for consistency. He is also “certified” (Ivy League educated) within only one specialty, his own field, never straying into some other intellectual’s jealously guarded territory of expertise. He stays politically correct while feigning a certain “cheekiness” by veering outside boxes with cleverly honed language skills. Fancy slogans and catchphrases become his signature byline, his earmark, his bread and butter. In fact, the truth is, this is the stamp of the pseudo-intellectual – lots of daily noise, no substance. Nothing really moves because it’s not supposed to.
This, as apposed to the amateur who realizes more than anything that his role is to seriously break rules and force confrontations blinded by fear and complacency. He’s the unwanted “conscience” of most professionals trapped by market forces, PC, and specialization. He also breaks into other’s private fields and specialties without fear of giving offense. For him it’s about putting together thoughts, ideas, conspiracies, theories, and possibilities usually avoided. He does this because others simply don’t – they don’t dare. He asks the “wrong” questions, puts forth the “wrong” ideas.
Hence the benefits of staying freelanced and amateur (not in any way synonymous with the dilettanti – those with mere “superficial interest or knowledge” of things. It’s a notion and stigma amateurs have to challenge everyday. In America the college degree and formal accreditation is everything.
The amateur artist observes more honestly than anyone. Nothing stands in his way. As for “art” per se, not much to say about it here, except that, again, nothing is what it seems – particularly in today’s world. We can thank the subterfuges and violence which have become the signature of living today, of simple survival, for the vertigo we all experience. So, again, there’s the appetite not just for the marginal but the underworld, for the esoteric and concealed, for creativity, and for what remains the nemesis of convention. There is never a lack of factual data (from experience) to confront the meretricious, the cheap, outright dishonesty and hypocrisy.
Proust used the word “habit” to describe the dullness of routine, what congealed into convention. Routine and convention both dull the senses. He went through life “in search of lost time” (his “remembrance of things past”) only to realize that what mattered most was relearning the simplest pleasures collected in childhood. This is what artists (including introverts and recluses) do. They search for the pure subtle moments of the everyday. A “Proustian Moment” is that which is simple and delightful, inducing a pause of intense remembering. Much of art is one long Proustian Moment while dealing with the lower rungs of consciousness which habit-ually come with it. I suppose, in the end, doing a “resume” at this time in my life is about trying to summon the memory of who I am. It’s a template for remembering, seeking out my own “lost time,” and keeping my senses from getting dull.
The remarkable thing about a resume is that it’s never static. It constantly changes and is being added to. The deeper it goes into itself, the more spread out it gets, the more it entails, the richer the topography. None of us end up being (or staying) what we say we are.
© 2018 Richard Hiatt