Conversing with a symphonic-minded physicist and a science-spirited musician on a small boat off the coast of a small island, I express my skepticism that the swell of digital records would improve posterity’s ability to know us better than we know our antecedents. A life, my companions argue, as a thousand tiny waves scatter the late-summer sun into a shimmering constellation around us, is immensely easier to reconstruct from the mass of emails andwe will each leave behind than it is from a handful of faded letters in a Victorian desk-drawer.
There is a surface logic to this reasoning. Despite myin the totality of Emily Dickinson’s surviving archives, I — and you, and she — will never have a final theory of who this person is; this flickering constellation of poetic conceits and personal contradictions was. But even as an archive-dwelling scholar frequently forestalled by the absence of surviving , I doubt that more information equals more illumination. We can hardly fathom our depths, much less another’s — no matter the .
It is more minor a problem of records than a problem of reckonings. We habitually see ourselves not as we are but as we aspire to be or fear we might be. Too readily, too unconsciously, we absorb who the world tells us we are, thenup to, or down to — that image, tender porous creatures that we are. (That, of course, is the most toxic effect of bigotry — we come to internalize our devaluation by society, even if we consciously believe otherwise.) Half-opaque as we are to ourselves, we to communicate to others what we want, what we mean, and what it is like to be us. These transmissions are irresolute and incomplete even at their most honest and self-aware. Often, they are warped by our yearning to appear a sure way to the receiver to achieve a particular effect with the signal — ripples on the surface of the self, catching the light depending on the observer’s position and the fleeting weather system of the observed. The Victorian love letter, text message, memoir, and Instagram selfie are all fragments of self-expression frozen in time, expressing an incomplete discontinuity of life. These elements can never reconstitute a complete and cohesive portrait of a person for posterity because being a person is perpetually contradictory and incomplete.
There is strange consolation in knowing ourselves and each other only incompletely — mercy that saves us from the tyranny of aon who and what we are.
The conversation on the boat reminded me of a passage by(July 26, 1894–November 22, 1963), exquisitely illustrative of these ambiguities and ambivalences of personhood.
In his 1954 classic( ), which explores a particular biochemical method for plumbing those unfathomed depths of personhood far beneath the surface waves of the self, he makes this astute general observation:
Humans are complicated creatures, living simultaneously in half a dozen different worlds. Each individual is unique and, in several respects, unlike all other species members. None of our motives is unmixed, and none of our actions can be traced back to a single source. In any group we care to study, observably similar behavior patterns may result from many constellations of different causes.
The confusion only deepens when two complexities try to make sense of each other, as we do whenever we connect:
To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.
Such clarity of vision acrossis inherently challenging — we inhabit, in Huxley’s lovely poetic image, “island universes.” He writes:
We live together, act on, and react to one another, but always and in all circumstances, we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence, in vain. Everysolitude by its very nature. Sensations, feelings, insights, and fancies are private and incommunicable except through symbols and secondhand. We can pool information about experiences but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.
Most island universes are sufficiently like one another to permit inferential understanding, mutual empathy, or “feeling into.” Thus, remembering our bereavement and humiliations, we can sympathize with others in similar circumstances and put ourselves (always in a slightly Pickwickian sense) in their places. But in certain cases, communication between universes is incomplete or even nonexistent.
In some instances, Huxley observes, those other minds appear to “belong to a different species and inhabit a radically alien universe” — none among us can be anything more than a bewildered visitor to the wonderlands which Bach and Blake called home. Even in more minor extreme cases, even in the everyday wonderlands we inhabit, theour primary instrument for outrospection — keep us from inviting others into the place we live. Drawing on from Milton’s Paradise Lost — a line that might be the most succinct summation of all philosophy and all psychology — Huxley writes:
The mind is its place… Words are uttered but fail to enlighten. The things and events to which the symbols refer belong to mutually exclusive realms of experience.
Complement with James Baldwin, writing in the same era, on” and a total Borges-infused reflection on , then revisit Huxley on and .