The False Self and the Post-Modern “Loss of Self”

Some time ago, I read a book entitled The Loss of Self in Modern Literature and Art, by an author with the unlikely name of “Wylie Sypher”. It was published in 1962, long before the term “post-modern” had been coined or entered into wide circulation. Nonetheless, this “loss of self” pretty much captured what was to be called “the post-modern condition”. This “loss of self” represents a great paradox and is the driver behind things like “identitarianism”, “Identity politics”, the hyperpartisan nature of our politics, and what has made a few capitalists rich selling “identikits”, ostensibly fully packaged branded “identities”. It is a driver of a great deal of present social turbulence. Yet, this “loss of self”, which seems to critical, may not be what it seems.

This “loss of self” has been a while in the making. Before it was called “loss of self” it was referred to as “the Crisis of the Individual” in a series articles published in Commentary Magazine just after World War II (and coincident with the splitting of the atom, significantly). The Commentary series of articles are fortunately still available online, all good, but I would single out Waldo Frank’s “The Central Problem of Modern Man” as especially insightful.

The onset of this “loss of self” or “crisis of the individual” is, nonetheless, traceable back at least to Nietzsche, as an essential consequence of “the death of God”. The lamentations of the “madman in the marketplace” very much describe what is later to be called “the post-modern condition” and the loss of self

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” (Parable of the Madman)

This is pretty much a description of the total disorientation that comes from the loss of self as well as nihilism for the God idea was really the self idea (and ideal) writ large. (Blake, for example, calls Jehovah, who is “Urizen”, also “Selfhood”). This God idea as the Selfhood writ large is profoundly significant, as we will see as we work our way through this issue of identity and the loss of self.

Although this “crisis of the individual” was already foreseen and described by William Blake as the tribulations of Urizen, it is with Nietzsche that we can identify its onset. And yet Nietzsche also saw reasons to be cheerful about it because the considered the “modern self” to be little more than a phantom, a false construct, that obscured and repressed the authentic essential being that we are. That is the meaning of his chapter in Zarathustra on the Self and the Ego entitled “The Despisers of the Body”, and I think few have really understood Nietzsche unless they have understood this chapter.

In his magnificent book The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser also describes, as an essential feature of his “deficient mode” of the “mental-rational consciousness structure”, this same “loss of self”. (Formerly, what is today called “loss of self” was referred to as “lost souls”). For Gebser, this “loss of self” and crisis of identity is a condition of maximum alienation and estrangement from “the vital centre”. Let’s revisit this essential passage from the opening chapter of his Ever-Present Origin entitled “Fundamental Considerations”, a condition of what Gebser calls “distantiation” (estrangement) from the “vital center”

When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient.

Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, p. 3 (Opening chapter on “Fundamental Considerations”)

(If you have not already done so it is very sobering to read “Fundamental Considerations”, available online, about the present state of human consciousness.)

What Gebser is referring to here is “identity”, and the condition he is describing is what we now call “narcissism” and the “culture of narcissism”, which is really the displacement of essential identity with a self-image or self-representation. Self and identity are not exactly equivalent. A very brilliant exegesis on this is A.H. Almaas’s The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization, where he identifies four aspects of the totality that we are implicitly — entity, identity, self, and individual. This fourfoldness or quadrilateral relationship is a recurring gestalt or pattern or “tetramorph” in much new thought. It is essentially a mandala form. “Identity” is also what Almaas calls “essential presence”, a term closely related to Jean Gebser’s “presentiation”. Almaas equates this essential presence with the Zen state of “No-Mind”.

Where there is crisis, there is opportunity and challenge. This “loss of self”, which is a disintegrative dynamic, is a paradox. It is not the dissolution of the essential identity but of the self-construct, the self-image, or the self-representation, which is often called “the false self”. It is a phantom, what we call the narcissistic self. The problem arises when we confuse the essential identity with the phantom that is self-image, and we invest our entire identity in this very fragile thing called “self-image”. This self-image is sustained and maintained by our inner monologue and belief system. We awake in the morning telling ourselves a fable about who we are and what our reality is like, and we go to bed at night telling ourselves who we are and what our reality is like, so we sustain our self-image through this internal monologue. Any challenge to our belief system or to the self-image is thus experienced as even an existential threat, because so much of identity has been invested in and confused with the self-image created by the internal monologue. We call this “thinking”, even though it’s not real thinking. Unfortunately, Descartes’ formula, cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am — which makes thinking and being equivalent, is of limited utility and value when it comes to discovery of the essential identity within and beyond the thinking ego. Even people who can’t think at all think they’ll disappear if they don’t have “an opinion” about themselves and everything.

So, the path of what is called “enlightenment” begins with the disentangling of the essential identity from the self-image, which is why I’m concerned about “bandaids” like “identikit” marketing which caters only to the narcissistic self and culture in its crisis of “identity”. It is very devious, and I have read many “how-to” books on the technique of selling “identities”.

The loss of self and crisis of identity, which seems so disastrous, is actually a blessing in disguise. The New Testament often has references to it as such in sometimes seemingly nonsensical or paradoxical statements like “those who lose their life shall find it” (which has been grotesquely misunderstood throughout history). Eckhart Tolle beautifully describes the emergence of his own essential identity as presence and the painful dissolution of his old self and self-image in The Power of Now. Those who have realised identity as essential presence, and not as the confabulation that is self-image, do not suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, nor injury nor offence to their person, because there is nothing to hit. There is nothing to defend, for it is really exhausting to constantly uphold and defend this phantom called “self-image”.

A great deal of contemporary turbulence and tumult is the false self bristling at its own devaluation and even dissolution, and clinging anxiously — even violently — to its defining and sustaining narratives of who it is and what its reality is like, even to the point of paranoia and absurdity. With this “loss of self”, everything (and perhaps everyone) begins to feel and look like an immediate existential threat.

What Gebser calls the “irruption” of time into consciousness and this matter of the loss of self are coincident phenomena, for time is impermanence, process, change, the temporary. It is also entropy, erosion, and death.

We’ll have more to say about this connection between the “irruption of time” into consciousness and the post-modern “loss of self” later.


23 responses to “The False Self and the Post-Modern “Loss of Self””

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Just a note: you may recall Kipling’s remark in his day that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”. This was the “common sense” understanding of his day, and an expression of dualism, such as we discussed in the previous post.

    Today, however, this is not assumed to be the “common sense” of many people, but nonsense. Today, there is a very fertile dialogue occurring between East and West, especially in physics. David Bohm is an example, but there are many others.

    Despite this fertile dialogue, there are a great many both East and West who are hostile to this, even violently so, who do not want this to take place because it threatens traditional “identities”. there is, additionally, the effort to overcome religious schisms through “interfaith dialogues”, and many are very hostile to this also.

  2. Smitty's Gelato: A Film Blog says :

    What you describe here sounds an awful lot like what happens, according to Jungian psychology, when the ego becomes inflated by the Self archetype, and actually begins to believe it is the Self. Although, what you describe also sounds like what happens when the ego becomes too invested in the persona it has constructed for itself.

    One question. I find examples helpful. What are some of these “how to” books that explain how to sell identikits?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Almost any book on “branding” is that. One about which I wrote quite a bit in earlier posts was Rolf Jensen’s *The Dream Society* which I found quite disturbing, since it seems to have also informed much of the scandals about psychological manipulation like the scandal about Cambridge Analytica.

      One that pops right out here on the nearby stack is Alyssa Quart’s *Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers*. One that I found particularly disturbing was Martin Lindstrom’s *Brand Sense: Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound” — in other words controlling identity through the total control of the environment.

      Another I might mention is *The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes*. It utilises Jungian archetype psychology.

      These can succeed today precisely because the identity is weak, and can be easily diverted into conditions of unfreedom, where identity is basically bestowed by anonymous manipulators.

      • Scott Preston says :

        I might mention also that these techniques conform to what Algis Mikunas (one of Gebser’s translators) refers to as “technocratic shamanism” in an essay he wrote entitled “Magic and Technological Culture”. This is that conjunction of “deficient” modes of the mental-rational and magical consciousness structures that Gebser warns about in The Ever-Present Origin, for power is the common denominator shared by these two modalities.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I might mention also that the value of these types of books is how well the illustrate (inadvertently and indirectly as it may be, the contemporary loss of self and crisis of identity. It is often the case that advertisers/branders are ahead of the sociologists in identifying commercial opportunities in spiritual crises of this sort. They have deeper pockets to do “research” and are very well financed by certain interest groups in doing so.

  3. Smitty's Gelato: A Film Blog says :

    Thanks for the examples. As a result, I realized I’m familiar with an example already: Ioan P. Couliano’s Eros and Magic in the Renaissance.

    Being a Disney and Star Wars fanboy I definitely feel conflicted, because on one hand, these movies contain Jungian archetypes that can be very illuminating, but these movies are also very much treated as brands.

    • Scott Preston says :

      My prof at Uni sent me off to view Star Wars when it came out, and to write something up about it. My initial response was “o dear, this is going to be badly abused”, which it was consequently for propaganda purposes.

      The career of Luke Skywalker, though, basically follows that of the Medieval Parsifal legend. Like Parsifal (or “Percival”), Skywalker is a naive young man who, through a series of adventures and misadventures, grows in maturity (ennoblement) and eventually becomes a knight of the Round Table, just like Skywalker becomes a Jedi. The Antagonist in the Parsifal legend is the sorcerer and spell-caster Klingsor (the archetype of the current “technocratic shaman” and “perception manager”) who becomes Darth Vader in Star Wars.

      • Smitty's Gelato: A Film Blog says :

        An additional thought: I think it is more accurate to compare Klingsor to the Emperor. He’s the true puppet master of the whole thing. Vader is more like the Wounded King Anfortas.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Star Wars…was consequently [abused] for propaganda purposes
        And is still being so abused today. 😥 (Thanks for using the word, abused, btw.)

        It’s not just the Star Wars franchise that is being abused, though. We’re seeing the same thing happening with everything from Lord of the Rings to Dune to the The Matrix and, I suspect, it’s for the very reason that they’re stories — narratives which can be manipulated to mean just about anything as can pretty much any other art form when you stop to think about it.

        I’m a fantasy, horror, science and speculative fiction fanboi myself, Smitty. In fact, fiction of all kinds just happens to be right up my alley. Just because the genres and entries in the genres are being so abused doesn’t mean there is something inherently wrong with them, however. As you say, they contain “Jungian” archetypes worth exploring and Luke’s story is obviously in the “Hero’s Journey” vein. SW was originally very strong on the whole “Good vs. Evil” tradition of the West (and that changed in the prequels with its insistence that Jedi and Sith must have a certain number of ‘midichlorians’ in their bloodstreams, no doubt weighing in on the ‘science vs. religion’ debates), but most of us still find, at least, the original trilogy inspiring. I’m not sure even George Lucas really knew what he had on his hands. He just wanted to create a “space opera” that incorporated elements of the familiar serials of his flaming youth and did, both with Star Wars and the Indiana Jones trilogy. (THX-1138, of course, being among his more ‘serious’ contributions to film history.)

        The films didn’t resonate with millions of people the world over for nothing, imho. The addition of Yoda in the second installment brought a little of the Eastern tradition into the picture. Something in them obviously struck a touchstone with people of all ages hailing from very different backgrounds and influences. So, it must have done something right.

        • Scott Preston says :

          I’m reminded of S.I. Hayakawa’s definition of the human as “the symbol -using, symbol-abusing animal”. Perhaps another way of defining “homo grammaticus” as the essential defining characteristic of the human (and not “sapiens”). Truer than “homo faber” or “homo oeconimicus” and so on, which should be considered subtypes of homo grammaticus.

        • Smitty's Gelato: A Film Blog says :

          I have certainly noticed that one man’s blue pill is another man’s red pill, haha.

          Thank God for fiction and movies. A few years ago I re-watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and it managed to lift some of my existential dread.

          Midi-chlorians are always a fun topic. I think they violate the barrier between science and religion, which is appropriate because they are basically microscopic daimons.

          I could talk with you about Star Wars all day, Infinite Warrior. One question: Have you noticed that Star Wars seems to have quite a bit of the spirit of William Blake in it? I sure have.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      In light of the staleness and lack of originality apparent in the vast majority of works of fiction and film today, I thought this quite appropriate as a possible corrective.

      A new storytelling paradigm must find a way to transcend and include the conflict resolution core of the old storytelling paradigm. One way would be to reframe conflicts as lessons, focusing on the healing, developmental & evolutionary gifts of the challenges we face. — Mark Allan Kaplan

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      This one’s for you, Smitty.

      Here it is, a couple months after we had this conversation, and I stumble across the most delightful video essay titled ‘Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2 Vs. Joseph Campbell’ by a young man named Noah Caldwell-Gervais. I think you might enjoy it. An excerpt:

      Although Campbell seems to have a genuine interest in multicultural expression of truth and beauty, he filters it all through the lens of the monomyth. He filters it all through himself and his unifying thesis so that the multitude of cultures and traditions he discusses lose their cultural individuality and become bearers of his message much more than their own.

  4. Smitty's Gelato: A Film Blog says :

    That’s interesting that you compare Vader to the technocratic shaman. In the Prequels you can definitely see the narcissistic tendencies that lead him into that role. In fact, this narcissism begins as a virtue. It is the desire to escape all of “the boxes of the mind,” like all of those stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. However, as he grows older, enantiodromia steps in and the desire to escape the boxes becomes a box itself. So when the Emperor offers him the power to escape all of the boxes he jumps on the chance.

    I’m guessing one way Star Wars can be abused is when a propaganda artist sees someone criticizing a self-image that they would like to protect. The propaganda artist could just simply label that critic as a usurper, which is to compare that critic to the Emperor, who was a usurper of the democratic order.

  5. TheOakofNormal says :

    It seems to me that social media is “unconsciously” doing a damn fine job at exposing the fraud of identity. One can can only watch somewhat bemused at all the self obsession/self deceit. Currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The main through line of the book is how much our species relies on fictions to organize our reality and one can only wonder what’s on the other side of the fiction of ego/identity. I don’t really think modern people got the message from our great artists how they approach identity and take it on and off like clothing.

  6. barryh says :

    Thanks for another great post.
    The same problem can be described in many different ways. I’ve been reading Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Matter with Things’, which highlights the loss of self in a different way – the dominance of rational/left brain over intuitive/right brain, instead of the essential partnership between them.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your describing McGilchrist’s contributions this way — as a “partnership” between them rather than an advocation of one over the other.

      Speaking of S.I. Hayakawa’s definition of the human as “the symbol -using, symbol-abusing animal,” too many people are busily abusing McGilchrist’s metaphors (if that’s the right word for them) for their own purposes. and it absolutely sickens me that they are.

  7. Andy Peterson says :

    Thank you for the links and suggestions! I am eager to dig in on some of these, especially the Gebser which seems to be of critical importance.
    I also see some benefits to how a generation of post-modern thinking coupled with the strange powers of social media have gone a long way to de-couple the individual (middle class western at least) from much of what used to help define an identity. Now we are in a space where one has more freedom than ever to build their own identity, and to explore their relationship to that identity. As you point out, it is also a very dangerous sea to swim in given how savvy others are becoming at creating these ready-made identities. The self-help niche is no longer so narrow, and calls to everyone in every little nook. I am particularly interested in how the individual can navigate these vast waters in search of something that will help them define themselves. I believe that the onus, which was always truly in our own hands, now has no other resting place even as façade. Each person must put in the work to figure out what matters to them, what their values and relationships are, and how to open up a path to what connects them to their center. Unfortunately, this isn’t a process that can be handed over, or monetized, and so the barriers to entry seem high. I am eager to read more and think about how we can each reframe our relationships to ourselves, so that we can reconnect without relying on someone else’s false hand-me-down identity.

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