Monday, November 5, 2012

Do we stay the same person?

William Boyd, whose novel Waiting for Sunrise I enjoyed for its style, is an accomplished English writer.  This week, I watched a film adaptation of another of his works, Any Human Heart (not my favorite title), and I was sorry to see that Boyd wrote the screenplay (not usually a good idea).

The result is a 6-hour TV movie involving three separate actors playing the central character, Logan, shown in his 80s looking back on the remembered fragments of his colorful (sexually active) life. In the process, the narrative voice, more than once, comments about how we never stay the same person. The central lesson of his life is that the things that happen to a person makes him or her a different person.  Is this true?

Logan, like the protagonist of the Boyd novel I read, is a passive pawn of fate and his active libido (over which his will has little control). The narrative tells us that we can't do much about what happens. The screenplay makes this explicit several times (in case we miss the point) that life is nothing but luck.

I beg to differ with this simplistic idea.  Of course, luck or chance determines many aspects of our lives, but so do our choices. We shape our own destinies; and as we change by a combination of biology, time, circumstances, and experience, we retain our core selves. We are not totally transformed, like a character in the Metaphorphoses, losing our essential identity or personhood.

This, at least, is what I have learned from years of reading the major writers from Augustine and Boethius, who wrestled with issues of freedom and fate 2,000 years ago, to more modern thinkers. To me, the freedom of the will is basic to morality, and the true self, as Thomas Merton called it, remains constant: he said it was the self impermanent to time, the self as seen by God.

Others (mystics in various traditions) have called it the center or ground of our being.  Some call it the soul.

Isabel Dalhousie, the philosophizing Edinburgh sleuth in the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, is open-minded enough (says the author of The Lost Art of Gratitude) to recognize that the self, or the soul, might just survive death, as she says.  "The rigid exclusion of that possibility could be seen as much a statement of faith as its rigid assertion," she tells herself, keeping her options open in a postmodern world.

The creator of Isabel Dalhousie may be less highly regarded than William Boyd in today's literary scene, but her reflections here are more valuable than the philosophy underlying much contemporary fiction, which, like Boyd's, has a pessimism rooted in a totally materialist notion of life. This means that even the possibility of something permanent in ourselves existing, and surviving us, is not seen as possible or worth discussing.

Merton may have a hard time spelling out what the "true self" is (James Finley does a fine job articulating this in a book on the subject), but at least he believes, as I do, in the self, that mysterious inner core of our being that G. M. Hopkins called the "selfless self of self, most strange, most still." 

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