Thursday, July 27, 2023


There's a course to be taken in between. The French existentialists -- I barely read them, but what a baneful influence they had on me! -- thought of life as a thing to be invented; made up, out of some primal creative fire, and then committed to, in an act of bold self-assertion. I don't think this conception stands up well under examination. Who, after all, does the creating? Where did *that* self come from, the one who makes the choices? Why, the self before the choices, of course, and you get a regress that's either infinite, or ends up in Mama and Papa and your kindergarten peers. This is noble independence? I don't think so. The thing  doesn't make any sense: and anyway it doesn't correspond to anything I know or remember about myself. I didn't invent myself. I've gradually and painfully discovered myself. There is self-shaping that goes on, choices, and practices; but Dale arrived on the scene already Dale, just as both my children, as far as I can tell, arrived already themselves. 

At the other extreme is Buddhist thought, as I met it in the Tibetan Kagyu lineage. There is no self, they insisted: it's an illusion, a narrative -- as Joan Didion would have said -- imposed on the phantasmagoria of experience. It's a useful and enormously generative idea, and it leads to all sorts of discoveries and undeceptions. I'm deeply grateful for it. But I don't after all think it's quite right either. I remember my teacher Michael Conklin saying that what was striking about meeting an old friend after many years was the fact that they were a now a different person; and it was one of the few times that I thought he was just plain wrong about something. No, that is not what happens. What's startling is how much they are the same person, how very recognizable they are: and how much, through all the changes, they recognize me. There is a generative pattern at work, spinning out fractal variations: infinite variations, but it's recognizably that same pattern playing out.

That self is not a thing, of course, like a lamp or chair: It's more like a song. "Diamonds and Rust" can be sung by Joan Baez or by Judas Priest. It's not the same song, but it is the same song. It's like that. 

What this means is that the impulse to make narrative sense of my life is not, necessarily, self-deception: though of course it's peculiarly prone to it. I can try to understand this pattern, try to cultivate it, try to put it in the corner of the garden where it will flourish. I can aspire to a flowering of myself, in the right place and in the right season. 


Dave Bonta said...

I just wanna say I love both those versions of "Diamonds and Rust," so I appreciate that analogy. (I'm also going through a process of re-assessing thinkers and ideologies that have influenced me. Re-reading the classics, however one defines that, is certainly one of the chief pleasures of growing old.)

Dale said...

Yes it is!