How do we get acquainted with ourselves?

Contemplation (Jocelyne in Munich)
Contemplation (Jocelyne in Munich)

During the summer I read two novels by Andre Gide – both of which raise serious questions about identity and self-knowledge. The first was published in 1902 as ‘The Immoralist‘ and the second in 1909 as ‘Strait is the gate‘. This latter novel can be read as a study of character, or, more anthropologically, as a study of culture and character. Most usually it is read as an account of almost unbearable tragedy: set in the context of a deeply religious middle-class milieu in early 20 century northern France, it describes how Christian teaching and belief can devastate the lives of young lovers. Gide’s text is always brilliant; it is full of depth and subtlety. It’s certainly a masterpiece and it’s not surprising that he was eventually awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1947.

In this short note I shall simply focus on the way Gide depicts one of the two central figures in ‘Strait is the gate’ – a certain ‘Jerome’. Then, through the stimulus provided by Gide’s account I shall ask a very basic question about how we arrive at the picture we have of ourselves. I shall also outline a reply to that question.

Right from the very beginning of Gide’s story we can begin to build a picture of Jerome; there are a number of clues as to ‘who he is’ – clues as to his fundamental psychology and his deepest dispositions. He wants, for example, to be entirely truthful in the story that he relates to us; his love of work is ingrained – and was so even from a very young age; for example, his diligence leads him to read books late into the evening; his feelings reveal complex emotions – emotions that can be felt very strongly. His upbringing has been disciplined; he seems very ‘proper’ and inclined to piety.

However, there is one passage in the early pages of the text that tell us more directly about the kind of person that he is. They also tell us how he arrived at the picture he has of himself.

During the preaching of a sermon the young Jerome finds himself consecrating his life both to God and his older cousin, Alissa (with whom he is in love). This exceptional and intense response did not, of course, come out of the blue. As Jerome mentions the austere teaching of Christ’s words, ‘Strive to enter in at the strait gate‘ fell on fertile ground: ‘It found my soul ready prepared and naturally predisposed to duty.’

As the text moves on we learn how Jerome’s personality character and ‘soul’ had been formed:  he had not only been set an ‘example’ by his parents but had also experienced, at their hands, a ‘puritanical discipline’. The result was that, inter alia, he had an unusual degree of self-control. Jerome declares that:

Self-control was natural to me as self-indulgence to others, and this severity to which I was subjected, far from being irksome, was soothing.

Then, after experiencing a sudden ‘illumination’ the fourteen year old Jerome is able to provide us with a thumbnail sketch of his character:

‘A sudden inward illumination made me acquainted with myself. I saw myself as a brooding, half-fledged, wistful creature, somewhat careless of others, somewhat unenterprising, and with no ambition save for such victories as are gained over self. I was fond of my books and cared only for games which needed reflection or effort. I did not much frequent the society of my schoolmates, and when I did take part in their amusements, it was only out of affection or good nature.

And so, the reader is left with a clear idea about the nature of this person, this character, Jerome. Two things strike us:

– first, and remarkably, the destiny of his whole life has been determined because he has consecrated himself to Alissa and to God

– second, self-control and a disposition to master the self are at the heart of his character – and conduct. He aspired to be one of the very few who would follow, to the letter, the most demanding of the teachings of Christ.

Gide’s sketch is riveting because as we read about Jerome’s experience it seems both entirely plausible and a reflection of how individual character might have been forged within the devoutly religious milieu of a wider culture that existed at a certain time in northern France. I think that we have to read the text very carefully because the magnitude of Jerome’s commitment reflects extremes of devotion and fervour – and yet, at the same time, it does not seem too far-fetched. There is something sobering and enlightening in Gide’s portrayal of the young Jerome. ..

In this second and very brief part of my note I return to the subject of self-knowledge – and in particular, the means by which we become acquainted with ourselves.

Jerome, in ‘Strait is the gate’, has, at the age of fourteen, a ‘sudden inward illumination’ that made him acquainted with himself. This may or may not be unusual but it certainly must count as one of the ways in which we arrive at self-knowledge. So, in answer to the question: ‘What are the ways in which we might acquire self-knowledge?’ I would include ‘a sudden illumination’ amongst them. On reflection, I think that there are at least seven other ways and I list them as follows:

– We may see someone (another person who we may like or dislike – it doesn’t matter) and then realise that they are a mirror of ourselves or that they reflect a distinct part of ourselves.

– We may be fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to find ourselves in favourable conditions of feedback in which information about ‘how we come across’ is shared with us.

– We may, as Primo Levi once articulated, have long familiarity with ourselves – with our habitual ways of reacting and feeling, and we may simply come to  ‘know who we are.’

– We may compare ourselves with others – and conclude that we are or are not ‘like that.’ (This may be a very similar process to the ‘mirror’ experience that I have noted above.)

– We may identify ourselves with a character in film, on television or in novels.

– We may discover something about ourselves through our dreams. For example, we may recognise ourselves in some or all of the way we are manifested in a dream sequence.

– And lastly, we may use some sort of psychological profiling device (or even psychoanalysis) to arrive at a description of the type of person we are (and this may include a detailed outline of our traits of personality).

Are there any other ways? There may well be. It is perfectly possible that the mind will operate mysteriously and yield knowledge about the self that is pre-articulate or that remains tacit rather than explicit. I’m referring here to some ideas that have been surfaced in the philosophy of mind – as well as to those researchers who have tried to explain the nature of consciousness…

Footnote: I am taking Gide’s phrase ‘a sudden inward illumination’ to refer to a spontaneous event that has occurred independently of any discernible stimulus.

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