Can We Only Know Ourselves Through Another?
Sallie Tisdale looks to Socrates and Hannah Arendt in Order to See Herself
One year when I was in my early twenties, the world came to weigh upon me without reason. I was often afraid or crying for the want of something nameless and large. I went to see a woman, a beautiful woman with thick honey hair, who looked at the palms of my hands and asked me several odd questions: Did I dream of robbers? Did I sweat when I ate? Were there times when one foot was cold and the other was hot? She gently took my wrist and felt my pulse for a long time. Then she prescribed: herbs, a homeopathic remedy, and herself. I was to spend a few hours each week looking into her eyes. They were terrifying, those hours, but so was everything else and I had nothing more to lose. I shivered with embarrassment, the simple weirdness of it: the two of us in a sunny room, knees touching, hands together, looking at each other without a word. I don’t know if it was the medicine or her amber gaze, but I got better. The world lost an ounce at a time and one day I could hold it by myself.
Socrates said that one should simply be as one wishes to appear. But one self implies another, makes another; without two, how can there be one? “Up to a point we can choose how to appear to others,” wrote Hannah Arendt, who knew a thing or two about choices. “Living things make their appearance like actors on a stage.” In hundreds of photographs, Arendt stares at the camera, ironic or solemn; she doesn’t smile. She is alert to self-display, its possibilities. Its sorrows. Be as one wishes to appear—an absurd idea. I don’t know what I wish for, and I don’t seem able to control the being part, either. I am alive and so I present myself to others. I align with Arendt—up to a point, I choose. Trouble is I am often past that point; by existing, I have crossed it.
Light falls across objects like oil, spilling everywhere. It sticks to things, beading up, bouncing back—reflection. I realized somewhere in the nineties that everyone was recording everything, the jam of cameras and camcorders spreading; now the smallest event doesn’t happen until its capture. A passing fad, I thought, these big, expensive toys—and then it was smaller cameras and tablets and cheaper everything and more of them so that now even the click is an application. Click. Click. Everything. Pictures of everything. The world, if it cared, can see photos of my street, my house, my lawn, the broken lawn chair on my faded deck, the weeds beneath my chimney. But why would the world care?
At some point I just stopped taking photographs, even when I know I’ll wish for one later—vacations, weddings—I forget to record what I’m doing in the midst of doing it. Another of my modern failures. I have a lot of photographs of my first child, the earliest when he was crowning, damp black hair emerging from my strained vagina into the shadowed dimness of my bedroom. At first I took a lot of photographs of my second child and my third child, too. But as they grew, I took fewer pictures, for lack of time and because more than half the time they seemed to scowl; they didn’t care to be seen—not by me. Their friends, that was a different story and still is; the peer group reflects; this is where they emerge. With me, once the source of everything, they turn aside.
* * * *
I flinch at photos now. Friends cheerfully send me pictures of my hand blocking the lens, trying to turn away; I get pictures of my feet, my buttocks, my graying hair bent over a book, unaware. Up to a point, I think, I can choose how I appear to myself. But most of us glance at ourselves and glance away, unsure. One wants to own oneself, be oneself, but how? This is how I look. I present myself to myself, and what a disappointment. On certain days, the mirror shows me a conjoined twin I’ve come to hate and can’t escape. My face is like a sinner dangling in purgatory, strung between enemy and friend. The sagging eyelids, the coarsened skin, the false smile. At least I’m dressed. A friend is diagnosed with a small lesion and all her skin must be examined, inch by inch. All her skin must be photographed, several times: armpits, belly, between her toes, her breasts, inside her labia. She stands naked, arms spread, legs apart, staring into the future. Every inch of her skin. On the one hand, she could die. On the other, she might as well.
I would hide from Diogenes’ lamp; my secret fear is that this is it, this is as real as I get, this false and slippery face like a funhouse mirror, attenuated, swollen, halved. I am mirrored inside and out, stuck in this meaty machine and not always happy about that, and stuck also in this consternation. I am split: observing, observed. Observing the observer, aware of being observed. Helplessly distant. “So long as I am together with others, barely conscious of myself,” (Arendt again; I always think of her as the old woman, weary, a bit gnomish) “I am as I appear to others.” Barely conscious?
One of the most radical inventions surely must be the Renaissance self-portrait: Europe is lined with tired faces, burdened by velvet and lace in darkened rooms, one after the other with sorrowful eyes, vaguely aghast. The damp brush is stayed for a moment in slow surprise. The young Rembrandt, still recovering from what he’s seen, covers his own face with shadow; he looks away, not meeting the eyes.
For a book tour, I need photographs. I have long resisted, but finally I submit. I hire a model to teach me what to do. She brings a makeup kit—I usually wear none at all—and she tsk-tsks over my wispy eyebrows, painting new ones on, rubbing in foundation, sprinkling powder, color, balm.
“You should get settled, then look down, away from the camera,” she tells me. “Think of a secret, and then look up.”
“A secret,” I say. “ What kind of secret?”
“Something no one else knows,” she says. “Something very private.” She grins, and then demonstrates: she crouches, bent, eyes closed and hair falling forward—a still and pensive body, without a face—and then she looks up and the room is alight, her eyes bright and a tiny smile, the barest part of a smile, a smile that makes you want more, that makes you want to say something, anything, to make her smile a little more. To discover her. And then she turns to me and says, “See?”
Until the first century of the Common Era, there were no full length mirrors, no way to see one’s entire body. People saw only parts of themselves. Imagine that first time: at last the whole, no longer rippling and shadowed in a pond but there, upright, lit, still. Complete, or seeming so. At last an answer to the burning question: How do I look? And not so very much later, an entire gallery of Versailles was mirrored, so that all the diamonds in Louis XIV ’s crown could reflect upon themselves. He walked down the hall, and one Louis after another turned to see—to see himself, itself, each Louis admiring the Louis who walked; each Louis leading to this one in particular, so multiplied that he had no end. How much ignorance of the world would I need to be that sure of myself? To believe that nothing else is as precious as me? I long to be so blessed.
The model’s advice works. It takes me a while; I am aware of her watching, of the blank black eye of the camera, the stiffness of my pose. But I am also full of secrets. I review a sexual fantasy, eyes cast down, and then look up, my crotch warm with memory.
“That’s good!” she says. “Keep going.” I think of sex for a while. Then I think of crimes. Wishes. I think of running away and changing my name. I think of being famous and rich. I am full of contempt and pride, and pleasure in my contempt, comfort in my pride. I glance up, see the camera, and think, you don’t know anything about me. And the photos are good and in a few I have a tiny smile full of promise.
* * * *
A beloved friend tells me that I hold myself apart, and it feels like a death sentence. It doesn’t matter that she’s right. I do. At a staff meeting with its invariable chatter of phone messages and weather and where did you get those shoes, I sit in a corner, doodling daisies on the agenda. I sit in a circle of friends and listen half-heartedly to another’s confession, my thoughts on my own. Really, you don’t know anything about me. My head hums with a countering stream of comments, ironic and amusing. I rehearse arguments—I always win. I dream of disasters, myself the hero, romances where I am the prize. While others speak. While others think I am listening.This appearance is unwelcome, this reflection a distortion, surely this can’t be the truth. Smooth mirrors reflect sharper images, more precise imitations. “Reflection at rough, or irregular, boundaries is diffuse,” I read, and this is what I seem to be—a rough boundary, diffusing any image close to true.
I seem to have lost years of my life when I wasn’t looking. Rilke prayed: “Fling the emptiness out of your arms / into the spaces we breathe.” Pay attention. My selves flash out of emptiness; they jostle like a crowd at the fair, giving way, pushing back. I am less concerned with the place from which they appear—with whether it is a nothing or a something, with whether knowing would be a comfort or a nauseating vastness outside my reach— then with the becoming. Who wins today? The self who displays (who preens, poses, curries favor) or the self who watches (wonders at, pities)? The judge? The one who flees the very sight? Selves multiply like layers of paint, and in the crowd it seems impossible to wholly become one, to completely become, anything, even for a moment. Impossible to be complete. Rilke, who wrote a great deal about the struggle of being and appearing, spent his life creating a veneer; he was his own brand, the brand Rilke, a narcissist and philanderer; Rilke was a bit of a creep.
Who is it—what is it?—that knows the difference between itself and another? That knows itself to be a self, this face to be its face? What knows its own hiddenness, its self-deception? I am me because I know myself to be me, but how? Here I am; I am me partly and confusingly because of what I know myself not to be; what I feel as difference. I am me because I am not you. You are the other, forever an other, irrevocably not-me. And thank god for that. I am irrevocably not other—and yet I seem always to be the tiniest fraction removed from being this. (What would it be like to be you? Instead of this? To be her? Him? To be, for just one damned second, not me.)
And Socrates be damned, most of the time we are not trying to be as we wish ourselves to appear, but the opposite: ever more expert at acting. Did he think it was such a simple matter? Pick from the grab bag of possibility, like buttons from a box? The urge to claim a space for the self collides and colludes with the urge to construct a self to fit the space. We are not entirely in charge here; habits long lost to memory are driving the bus; we wake up in the midst of action. And the actor is only the self, of course; how could it be otherwise? There is nothing this wormy ego does that isn’t mine. All of it—growth and loss like a rash; endless rebirths of a self beyond boring, refusing to die. The mask, the play, the rehearsed grin, the ritual gasp, the parsing of threats—the certainty of not wholly belonging to any other, of being never wholly with. All mine.
Grieve—I grieve, you should, too—for the inability to be true, that one is never authentic. One is only, in Arendt’s words again, “an appearance among appearances”; nothing and everything is false, authentic, whole, broken. More or less. “Our modern identity crisis could be resolved only by never being alone and never trying to think.” We’re working on that. She believed, or claimed to, that we are all the same in some buried place, that a kind of psychic fundament exists, a ceaseless biology of mind—a sameness of selves as our cells are the same. (They are not, though, our cells: not exactly the same, any more than a blade of grass in a meadow is like another.)
We claim to want this place where we are the same—claim that we would run to meet each other there. Finding that space is the purpose of our lives, we say, glibly taking each other’s hands and swaying in affirmation. Kumbaya. Perhaps we mean it. I think I do. I think I don’t; I am not certain about this. Where we are the same is, for now, just mine; this space remains mine alone. I may not want to share. I look at my sister, my son, faces known all their lives—so familiar, even with all the thoughts behind the face opaque as snow—and a buried lonesomeness flies up, stinging In the midst of washing my breakfast plate I am dizzied by a great gulf of difference; I have no idea who they are, what they want, what they need.
Facing those others who believe themselves to know me, I smile and say hello. How nice to see you. A me speaks, a you listens—at least with half an ear—to words upon which we might in part agree. What is intimacy but having a few more words in our shared vocabulary than we have with the others to whom we turn in longing?—though the meaning of each word is always a matter of debate, and one we no longer have the heart to carry on because of the risk we will find there is no agreement after all. The words hunker down like ticks, digging in, thick with cliché, the giant delicacy of the social sphere. You are so far away, your desires so different and vague, and language is little more than the demilitarized zone in which we try to negotiate some unstable peace. Never mind that these are old concerns, that they are solipsistic and infinitely regressive, that many good minds have followed them into tiny corners from which they seem unable to escape. Communication is the second self, or third, always false; the first one cowers or cries out, depending.
I say to a friend, I want to be done with the witness, and he turns away, hissing, I want to obliterate it. He would like to die as a self aware of itself, in order to be seen as a self at all. We can be exactly as we long to be, appear exactly as we are, only by not knowing we have appeared—and what a thought of heaven that is. Our struggle to be at peace with ourselves would be gone; we would no longer be trying to be ourselves at all. Awareness without reflection—animal life. Or perhaps more the the heliotropic plant, quivering toward the light. Responding, but never having to act. The dream of extinction while still blessedly alive.
Walking on a summer evening. Just walking. The power of the stride. Leg swinging foot, shadowed trees, cloth sliding on skin. Barely conscious. Almost barely conscious. And then conscious again. So rarely felt. Look at them now: my children’s past lives, their rebirths, their many deaths. How can we know, how can we be known, when all this knowing and striving to be known is done by fragile beings in the midst of arriving and departing, too barely conscious to be quite here? For the briefest of seconds, we meet, and then are lost again. The immutable opacity of relationship is as rippled and broken as the pond into which our ancestors gazed. This shrill striving for proximity that we seem to trade only for the echoing hall of solitude—how to bear it?
I have friends; I have family; I love; I am loved. But what mystery, this solitude in the midst of these specific people. For a long time I thought love meant not feeling alone. I thought love would cure the bounded self. In moments, so it seems: transparent collapse into the space of another, the rainbow oil of the bubble’s skin splitting without breaking until two are one and still two. How elusive, that Venn diagram of the wounded psyche; most of me still outside, a fraction shared, and we call this trust.
* * * *
I am in Kampala, on my way out to a rural village for a stay of weeks, when I realize that I have forgotten to pack a mirror. I spend a day looking—and a day shopping in Kampala is a long day—without luck. The dim little shops selling thongs, hair gel, liquor, and dish soap do not have mirrors. But neither do I find mirrors in the bigger stores, not even the supermarkets white with fluorescent where you can fill your cart with groceries, cosmetics, lawn furniture, DVDs, and Christmas tree lights. Finally I give up in a kind of existential panic. I cannot see myself at all. Now when everything, everything is recorded, presented, reflected, preserved, when all image is manipulated and no photograph is real: now, I do not know how I look.
So I give up and go, and for some time I share a cool room with several Ugandan women I know. They deflect compliments even as they invite the eye, each one beautiful and perfectly groomed; their warm brown skin clear, smoothly lotioned, with careful makeup. Their hair is done in elaborate braids; they seem to have no luggage but wear different clothes every day, all mysteriously pressed where there is no electricity. They love to talk, they are always together, laughing, shushing each other, lightly teasing, touching on the forearm, the neck, lying in the bunks together, murmuring under the mosquito nets. “So long as I am together with others, barely conscious of myself, I am as I appear to others.” Beside this unfettered beauty, I curl up alone in my bed. I hold myself apart. I wonder, how do I look? but I don’t really want to know.
We are never visible to others exactly, nor is the world wholly visible to us; the shell is always there in between. I look out through a fogged window. So I accept that mine is a partial view, the product of untold errors and limits; I accept that I can’t see all of a thing because I can’t see everything. I accept that no one can be seen, and so I believe that no one will ever wholly see me—and what relief, at once, to know this. So I will call myself planetary, cosmic; my darkness hidden in the darkness, in the far side. (I do not, of course, really accept this. I am being as I long to appear. I will pretend this is some kind of consolation, that this is the point, that it is due to our largeness, the very size of our selves, that we are each larger than each other’s views.)
Perhaps we are not reflections at all. Do I have it completely wrong? Are we instead completely brightness, completely light? Such light that it casts no shadows? For weeks in Uganda I am surrounded by their warm darkness, the laughter, the damp perfume of clean skin. Either they are radiating bodies themselves, or they are perfect mirrors, each reflecting the other. What closeness. How do I look? one says, tilting her head. The others say, Yes. They say, You look fine.
Excerpted from VIOLATION. Used with permission of Hawthorne Books. Copyright © 2016 by Sallie Tisdale.