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.