Where am I going? I don't quite know. What does it matter where people go? Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow- Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know. - A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young
Whenever you’re minded to make a big change in your life – the desire to be more productive, say, or to quit drinking after years of abuse – it doesn’t take long to experience a sensation of still being tied down to old behavioural patterns, like echoes of the former self breaching the trenches of change that you’re trying to enforce on yourself.
Whether we put these echoes down to habit, learned behaviour, or sheer human weakness, the result is the same: the self that we convince ourselves has steadfastness or consistency turns out to contain cracks that run deeper than we might care to admit. It’s as though there are different selves competing for dominance over our behaviour that can be difficult to navigate, and they frequently raise the question of who we “really” are.
But change in our self, of course, occurs naturally. You might live for decades not noticing much of a change on a day-to-day basis, and yet find yourself at 70 not even recognising who you were at 20. Yes, you have vague recollections of what you were doing, but everything is shrouded in a shade; the memories are so strange and different that they might as well not be true. Sylvia Plath captures this sensation of ageing acutely in “Mirror”:
[...] I see her back, and reflect it faithfully. She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands. I am important to her. She comes and goes. Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness. In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Plath portrays it here as being inevitable, consistent, terrible, like a death of the former self and the anticipation of yet more change. I have written elsewhere about the falsehood of memories, so I won’t dwell on that, but this perceived decay of the self is closely related.
Such a sense of decay increases the more abrupt or intense the change is felt to be. The natural ageing process feels strong because of the sheer amount of time that has given rise to many small changes; deliberate attempts at change are a struggle because it works against “what we are used to”, as it were. But what if there is a quick, unintentional change?
Rapid change can happen when there are major turning points in life – losing a loved one, or getting laid off from a job we cherished – and this can feel like the opening of a rift. Beliefs formerly held to be true seem to be false; we are treading new ground and might perceive novelty as a threat. Recent memories of who we were just days ago may seem strangely distant. There may be anxiety or shame attached to the person we used to be; or, more positively, there might also be feelings of pride or accomplishment if we move beyond those versions of ourselves.
Change is of course transformative, but no matter if good or bad, it is always a messy process, simply because we are messy beings ourselves, with complicated relations to who we are. Trying to live with that confusion, and learning to cover the cracks with a lasting solution, is one of life’s great struggles.
It is therefore not surprising that one of the great themes of art is this struggle with the self. John Clare’s haunting “I Am!”, a poem written while he was incarcerated in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, is particularly apt:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows; My friends forsake me like a memory lost: I am the self-consumer of my woes— They rise and vanish in oblivious host, Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, Into the living sea of waking dreams, Where there is neither sense of life or joys, But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems; Even the dearest that I loved the best Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
Although the speaker here reaffirms a sense of his being, there is a clear sense of fragmentation and loss of self as he struggles to grasp what, exactly, he is. It ends on a note of death – though what really is sought for is peace by any means:
I long for scenes where man hath never trod A place where woman never smiled or wept There to abide with my Creator, God, And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept, Untroubling and untroubled where I lie The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
What we really feel when reading this poem is a yearning for an end to the confusion and strife, and a return to a more innocent time of persistence, clarity, and order – and be that in death.
Other works of art display the sense of unease and fragmentation without bringing in the yearning desire. Dalí’s The Burning Giraffe is a beautiful example of this:
Exploring the cracks in our self-image is likely a never-ending process, but it does highlight that our fractured personalities are a fundamental part of what makes us human. Reconciling the different parts of ourselves is a universal experience and a daily struggle. To take the words of John Addison out of context, “we are not human beings, we are human becomings.” The end-result might very well be one that we experience at the end of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land:
I sat upon the shore Fishing, with the arid plain behind me Shall I at least set my lands in order? London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie These fragments I have shored against my ruins Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe. Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih shantih shantih